This has long been one of my favourite Doctor Dolittle books, and I happen to have an old edition, complete with all of Lofting’s charming, delicate pen and ink drawings. (And some of the less charming ones too, like the caricatures of African characters which have been removed from sanitized editions.) The book chronicles the adventures of Mudface, a turtle who lived through the flood, and tells Doctor Dolittle and his household about it, from the building of Noah’s Ark to the ultimate survival of humans.
I love all of the members of the Doctor’s household. Gub Gub the pig, Dab Dab the duck, Too Too the owl…and let’s not forget Chee Chee, Jip, Whitey, and of course Polynesia the parrot. The characters in the books really are all distinctive, and Lofting clearly had a love and respect for animals, and tried to impart it to his readers as well.
There’s something deeply agreeable about a man who prefers the company of animals to people. Lofting’s books definitely had some issues, although apparently not enough to interfere with getting a Newbury award. I suspect that if Lofting had been alive today, his books wouldn’t have subtle sexist and racist gibes; rather, these issues are relics of the time he lived in wrote in, and I think they illustrate the need to read books as they were written, to understand their context and the popular thinking of their time.
One thing about the book which I had missed as a child was the anti-war message at the end. At the very end of the book, the Doctor, Mudface, and the household explore some ruins from before the deluge which have surfaced as a result of an earthquake, and they find themselves in the treasure vault of a long-dead king. While in the vault, they discuss the tyranny of the king, and his attempt to conquer the entire world, and there’s a little anti-war speech. I had always found that part of the book kind of awkward, and now I realize why: Lofting was trying to embed a little pacifism in the book, and he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.
Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake, by Hugh Lofting. Published 1948, 366 pages. Fiction.