Thursday, August 6, 2009

Three Book Reviews

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Recommended Ages: 10+

We have already met the good doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, the one who talks to animals, the better to treat their aches and pains and to learn about the natural world. In this second book of his adventures, Doctor Dolittle gets a young assistant: Tommy Stubbins, who narrates this installment.

Tommy tells us how he befriended the amazing doctor, how he decided he wanted to be a naturalist too, and how he started to learn to talk the animals' languages himself. First come some dry-land escapades, including a remarkable murder trial in which a dog becomes the key witness. Then the voyages properly begin.

Doctor Dolittle, Tommy, and several of their animal friends set sail. They are accompanied by their old friend Bumpo, an African prince who has been studying at Oxford, and whose hilarious mangling of fancy words shows how dangerous a little education can be. Unfortunately, their ship also carries a surprising number of stowaways, who add spice to the early stages of the journey.

Some of the incidents along the way include a curious bullfight, a narrow escape, a disastrous storm, and a conversation with a funny little fish called the fidgit. This proves to be the Doctor's first lead in his quest to learn the language of shellfish. But before he can commune with the Giant Glass Snail, he must save the life of a South American Indian naturalist named Long Arrow, save the inhabitants of a floating island from an icy death, save a tribal village from an attacking enemy against overwhelming odds, ...and then save himself from being stuck forever as king of Spider Monkey Island.

This sequel to The Story of Doctor Dolittle won the Newbery Medal in 1923, only the second year the award was given. It became a classic of children's literature and led to ten more sequels, recommended for their excellence and their humanitarian spirit by such champions as Jane Goodall. They were translated into several languages and remain perennial favorites around the world. So it is amazing that for several years, this book and its companions were out of print in the U.S., where they were originally published. And when Dell considered reissuing the book in the 1980s, there was serious concern as to whether it could or should be done.

In an Afterword to the 1988 revised edition of this book, the author's son Christopher Lofting explains this astonishing twist of fate. In spite of the book's themes of compassion, understanding, and equality, it was hampered by a few expressions, and by some of the author's illustrations, that echoed racial stereotypes. Such things were acceptable in the 1920s, but would be considered offensive and degrading now. So, to make this book ready for republication, some revisions had to be made. But this also presented problems: such as whether a literary classic ought to be submitted to censorship in a free country; such as whether an author's work should be revised when the author himself (1886-1947) could no longer speak for it. After wrestling over this dilemma, the editors and publishers went ahead with the revised edition. The younger Mr. Lofting assures us that the textual changes are small and few, that the offending illustrations have been replaced with previously unpublished drawings by the author himself, and that in any event Hugh Lofting would have approved of the spirit in which the changes were made.

The reader may also, therefore, face a dilemma. By reading this book (as currently in print), one may be supporting an ominous precedent. It means that, for reasons of political correctness, classic pieces of literature may be subjected to censorship. It means that people who grew up loving the original text of the books may be confused by a later edition having a different text. It means that future generations may find it hard to sort out which version represents the authentic, authoritative Hugh Lofting.

On the other hand, if the alternative is not to be able to read this wonderful story, the risk may be worthwhile. And the bowdlerizing isn't due to state policy, after all, but to the publisher's concern that the original book's occasional insensitivity to some readers' racial identity would hurt its chances of being accepted by parents, teachers, and librarians. So, perhaps, we are better off being able to read it at all, even in an altered version. Perhaps the revisions are really necessary to make the book acceptable to present-day readers.

But it's interesting to find such textual dilemmas in a work less than a century old. When we look back on the writings of Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus, and their lot, we find textual problems everywhere. A word changed here, a passage omitted there, material rearranged, the original text only to be guessed at and always under debate... Is this how it all began?

by Gary Paulsen
Recommended Ages: 12+

Brian Robeson, aged 13, thinks it's tough having divorced parents. He thinks it's tough having to fly from New York to northern Canada to visit his father over the summer. He doesn't find out what tough is until the pilot of a single-engine Cessna dies of a heart attack right beside him. Brian finds himself alone at 70,000 feet, with no idea where he is and no one on the radio to help him land the plane.

Considering that he lives through the crash, I suppose he does all right. But then he has to keep on living. With nothing but the clothes on his back and a hatchet his mother had given him as a parting gift, he has to scratch a living out of the Canadian wilderness. That's when he finds out what tough is. He is.

This is the story of Brian's fifty-four-day ordeal. Aided by nothing but a hatchet and the will to survive, even after he knows the search for him has been called off, he holds off starvation. He survives encounters with bears, a porcupine, a skunk, a wolf, and (most terrifying of all) a moose. He learns to make fire, shelter, and weapons so that he can hunt and fish. He makes mistakes that nearly cost him his life. He becomes attuned to the sounds, smells, and visual details around him: a human survival machine.

And then the tornado sweeps through his camp and gives him one, final opportunity to choose between life and death. The outcome is so surprising that it may seem abrupt. Just when it looked like an interesting new chapter might be opening for Brian, the story ends in a way that, evidently, many of the book's original fans didn't like. Though it received a Newbery Honor in 1988, and already had a sequel (The River), the book's fans prevailed on its author to provide an alternate ending. This, in turn, led to three other sequels (Brian's Winter, Brian's Return and Brian's Hunt), which are now considered "canonical." It's an interesting, and perhaps unique, case of a single book splitting off into two separate series with mutually contradictory storylines.

Gary Paulsen is an interesting character. Besides writing an astounding number of books, he has also competed in the Iditarod dogsled race, survived in the wilderness, and experienced everything - literally everything - that Brian lives through in this book. His books in general will appeal to the type of reader who enjoys coming-of-age stories and the idea of living in the wild, without the aid of modern technology. Up-and-coming fantasy writers should probably read every one of his titles, to give their camping and hunting scenes a ring of authenticity. Any would-be writer, in fact, and lovers of good writing, should take note of this book and its author's uniquely gripping, dramatic, often downright poetic style.

Swallows and Amazons
by Arthur Ransome
Recommended Ages: 10+

This 1929 novel spawned like a fish. Its first offspring were a series of books, twelve completed and one unfinished, featuring such titles as Coot Club, Pigeon Post, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, and The Picts and the Martyrs: Or Not Welcome At All. It also spawned a whole genre of "school holidays" adventures in which British kids get up to all kinds of exciting things between terms. For example, the successful 1937 novel The Far-Distant Oxus was written by two teenage fans of this series. Who ever said that fanfic would get you nowhere?

Based in part on the author's own childhood outings in England's Lake District, and in part on the adventures of some young friends when he retired there later in life, Swallows and Amazons draws an irresistable picture of the fantasy world inhabited by six daring and active children. Who wouldn't envy them their ability to sail up and down a fictional lake, jointly based on Britain's Windermere and Coniston Water? Who wouldn't thrill to a two-week campout on an uninhabited island, combining fishing and swimming with make-believe games about explorers, pirates, marooned sailors, and naval battles? Who wouldn't enjoy a visit to a coal-burner's hut, an adventure with real live burglars and their buried loot, a nighttime cutting-out expedition, and hand-to-hand combat on the deck of the dread Captain Flint's retirement yacht?

Well, some of us probably wouldn't have enjoyed those things, when we were pudgy, bookish children with a horror of biting insects. But then again, some of us can also look back fondly on our own real-life sailing adventures (few and brief as they may have been) and will agree that such a summer holiday is greatly to be envied. With Arthur Ransome's aid, we can read ourselves into the charming fantasy of the Walker and Blackett children. It's a remarkable fantasy, where adults are "natives" and adult concerns are a silly conceit that we humor from time to time, and where a make-believe world of sailors and pirates is the "reality" to which we must return for our sanity's sake.

It's got the charms of a little boy named Roger, first seen running zig-zag up a field, pretending to be a ship tacking into the wind; a slightly-less-little girl named Titty (I kid you not) whose unexpected daring saves the day more than once; a motherly sister named Susan, who sometimes seems more old-fashioned than their sisterly mother; a physically impressive specimen in older brother John, who knows all about climbing trees and swimming around whole islands, and who can't wait to join the Navy like his father; not to mention the Blackett sisters, a chatty child called Peggy and a "ruthless" virago called Nancy. By the end of the book you will have stopped asking yourself why you couldn't have siblings and childhood friends like them. You'll have made up your mind that you do.

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