Today’s the birthday of Hugh Lofting, author of the Dr. Dolittle novels, in Maidenhead, England in 1886. His books were among the earliest “chapter” books I’ve read, and Lofting is one of three authors I read as a boy who made me want to try to be a writer. (More on the other two, Jerry West, author of the Happy Hollister adventure series, and Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, at another time.) I’ve often told the story of how my mother let me walk to the library by myself in the small town where I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I was just six. I’m grateful for the road to independence this trust set me on. I know that some of the books I checked out at the Lima Public Library at that tender age were by Lofting.
As I’ve written before, I’m a sucker for the Dr. Dolittle novels. I read them so often I wrote a sequel at age 8, and I’d give a shilling or two to find that. My collection is almost complete, my prize a 1924 edition of Doctor Dolittle’s Circus. As a boy, I loved the interwoven stories and exploits of the various animal characters. Even now there’s a inventiveness to the straightforward story telling that I find charming. That said, I’m not blind to the books’ flaws. Lofting can drift into formula. The volumes set in Africa are racist. Lazy characterizations persist, personified (so to speak) by the one dimensional Dab-Dab the Duck, the perpetually grouchy housekeeper. The best, like Dr. Dolittle and the Green Canary, feature plucky animals narrating their adventures across England. Most instructive for an aspiring writer, they’re models of efficient pacing: no dawdling to get started here. “Nearly all the history of Doctor Dolittle’s post office took place when he was returning from a voyage to West Africa,” begins Doctor Dolittle’s Post Office. “Therefore I will begin (as soon as I have told you a little about how he came to take the journey) from where he turned his ship towards home again and set sail for Puddleby-on-the Marsh.” And we’re off.