Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting (1922)

Here I am! The slacker of For Those About to Mock with my 1920's review for the Newbery Wayback Machine. I have excuses, none of them great, as to why it took me so long to read this book, but look I made this cool gif, so hopefully you'll forgive me!

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is actually the second of Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle books (there are 12 of them total!) and it was the winner of our illustrious Newbery medal in 1923. Lofting got the idea for Doctor Dolittle during World War I. He didn't want to write home about the brutalities of war, so he filled letters to his family with fantastic stories instead.

Voyages is told from the perspective of Tommy Stubbins, who is about 9 when the book begins and about 11 when the book ends. He lives in a quaint English town, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, where his father is a cobbler. Stubbins is an interesting kid. His family doesn't make enough money for him to go to school, so he spends his days hanging out with his three best friends, "Joe, the mussel man," "Matthew Mugg, the cat's meat man," and "Luke the Hermit." Okay...

Stubbins has a fondness for animals which leads him to saving a wounded squirrel and eventually bringing that squirrel to renowned naturalist, John Dolittle. Dolittle is an animal doctor, and he's sort of the greatest animal doctor of all time because he can talk to animals, and by that I mean he has learned the languages of hundreds of animals and can actually converse with them. 

(Real talk: I chose this book as my 1920's selection because as a girl I was entranced by the Academy Award winning musical Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison. Also whenever asked "If you could have a super power what would it be?" I always choose "The power to understand animals" because I've always wanted to talk with my dog. Although she'd probably just say "Are you gonna eat that?!?!" over and over and over again. Really I ought to rethink it... But getting back on track!)

But seriously... Are you gonna eat that?!?!

Stubbins asks his parents if he can live with Doctor Dolittle so he can apprentice with him and learn to become a naturalist and speak the languages of animals too. And they let him. Okay...

But the Doctor never stays in Puddleby too long, despite his many patients, and glorious garden, to occupy him. He prefers to be traveling, exploring new lands, meeting exciting animals. When he learns that his fellow naturalist, Long Arrow, son of Golden Arrow, has gone missing, and was last seen on the mysterious Spider Monkey Island, he and Stubbins, along with Bumpo, an African Prince and acquaintance of the Doctor, and a few of their animal friends, set sail to see what they can discover.

Here's all you really need to know about John Dolittle: He always sorts out whatever problem comes his way. He doesn't go about it in the most traditional way, but he always saves the day. For instance, he's never been classically trained in nautical arts, but he can get you anywhere you need to go on a boat. You never have to worry when Doctor Dolittle is around. If you have something that needs fixing, he'll do it, usually in the most unexpected way. 

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is delightful book for children. As an adult I personally found it repetitive. The Doctor gets a man off the hook for a murder charge by questioning his dog on the witness stand! The Doctor ends bull fighting on a particular Spanish island by wagering he can win a bull fight by simply communicating with the bulls! The Doctor saves an entire primitive native village from war, famine, and disease! I get it, the Doctor is incredible! Perhaps a little too incredible! As a child I probably wouldn't have been able to get enough of the Doctor's prolific adventures. As an adult I felt like they were overkill. In fact the adventure that is most foreshadowed in the book, that I looked most forward to, the Doctor finally coming face-to-face with the illusive great glass sea snail, felt so anti-climatic after all the other many adventures, that I just wanted to go back to quiet Puddleby and take a nap.

Also I really disliked the character of Polynesia, a hundreds-year-old parrot who travels with the Doctor and helps to educate Stubbins. Again, as a child I probably would have been besotted with this intelligent bird. As a cynical codger I found her to be a know-it-all, and a bit of an asshole (I asked Sam and Rachael if there was a nice way to say I thought the parrot was an asshole and they told me to just say it! So I have! Come at me Polynesia!)

I think the magic of Voyages lies with at what age you read it, and also what edition you get a hold of. It's pretty much impossible to read an original version of this book now. In fact this beloved Newbery winner went out of print in the good old U S of A for over a decade! When it was reissued, publishers chose to edit and omit parts of the book that were... well... racist. Some people may want to hold that against the book and the author. My 2 cents: Lofting was a guy in the 1920's, writing about a guy in the 1820's, and I honestly don't think he was a raging hate monger. He was a man of the times, and the times have changed, but so has the book now.

Was this the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1923? Do you know the Newbery committee named ZERO honor books that year? So for all we know it was the only distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1923! It is undeniably charming, and culturally significant, inspiring many adaptations for screen and stage. And really, if we could talk to the animals, what a lovely place the world would be.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly (1929)

This is the edition that I read.
There are more appealing covers,
but I thought you should suffer as I did.
We're going to skip to the end of the Newbery's first decade now and take a look at the winner of the 1929 medal: Eric P. Kelly's rousing adventure of late Medieval/early Renaissance Poland, The Trumpeter of Krakow. 

When I was searching Goodreads for the books that I plan to read for this Newbery Wayback plan, I kept coming across my friends' reviews of these books. Of Trumpeter, Colby Sharp said: "I have no idea why I'm giving this book 2 stars instead of 1. I think mostly because I'm giving myself a bonus star because I finished it in one sitting." Well, Mr. Sharp, color me impressed. I had trouble getting through a single chapter without nodding off, so you must have had some strong coffee at your disposal. 

But look: I told myself I wasn't going to be uncharitable in this review and I'm already unleashing the snark. 

The Trumpeter of Krakow combines two genres that seemed to be frequently lauded during the first decade of the Newbery: historical fiction and stories about Faraway Lands. It tells the story of a father, mother, and son who makes their way to Krakow after their estate is destroyed by Tartars. In their possession is the MacGuffin Great Tarnov Crystal, which the family has sworn to hide and eventually deliver to the king of Poland. The Good Jan Kanty finds them lodgings in the same building as an alchemist and his beautiful daughter. An evil Tartar tries to get the Crystal. He doesn't succeed. There is a big fire and the kids get married at the end. 

In the spirit of charity, let's talk about what Kelly gets right: setting. Even a modern reader has to admit, I think, that Kelly's evocation of fifteenth century Poland is vivid and well-researched*. The city of Krakow is probably the most well-developed character in the novel. While the other characters' personalities may be flat, at least we know exactly what they're wearing. (This is true almost ad absurdum - I felt like I was watching Project Runway: Medieval Krakow when I read descriptions like this, of a watchman who only appears in the book for two pages: "He was a man perhaps past middle age, clad in a garment of leather over which was a very light chain armor poorly woven; this fell like a skirt with pointed edges just below the knees. Above the waist the links of armor were a bit heavier, extending over the shoulders and back into long sleeves clear to the wrist, and up past the neck to a kind of head-covering like a cowl, over which he wore a pointed helmet of rough metal. Outside the armor he wore a very short leather vest caught with a belt  from which hung a short sword, and across the shoulders just below the neck another belt with a buckle at the left, where the halberd could be secured and balanced." Make it work, Kelly!)

And that description is fairly representative of Kelly's treatment of his characters. They are types: the swarthy, scar-faced Tartar; the skulking half-wit; the pure and beautiful young girl. After taking the era to task over its rampant superstition, Kelly indulges in the most blatant physiognomy in his description of the evil young student who leads the alchemist astray: "But the nose was thin and mean, the mouth was small and smug, and out of the eyes came a look that signified an utterly selfish spirit behind them." 

If the characters were lacking, I was hoping to at least get caught up in the plot, which The Horn Book described as "a tale of exciting adventure." While it's true that a great deal of things happen, Kelly's prose has an oddly detached quality that robs the action of all immediacy. The dialogue in particular is laughably flat. When the band of Tartars invades the family's lodgings and captures the boy, the alchemist responds to the life-threatening situation taking place outside his door like so: "Whew, thought the alchemist, they silenced the boy. A gag, probably." Darn it, and they're probably going to kill him too. 

Trumpeter was well-received in its day. It emerged from MacMillan under the guidance of Louise Seaman Bechtel, the rock star children's editor of the Newbery's first few decades. Anne Carroll Moore called it "a thrilling, well-written adventure mystery story" in her round-up of "representative" books of 1928

Should it have won the medal? Given that six honor books were named that year, we can conclude that 1928 was considered a very good year for children's publishing. Only one of those books is still widely read - much more widely than Trumpeter, I'd wager - and that is Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats. In Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard Marcus observes, "When librarians awarded Millions of Cats a Newbery Honor, they chose to recognize the book's distinction while apparently not feeling quite right about giving the literature prize to a picture book." 

I agree. There's no question that Millions of Cats is the better book, and I bet this past year's Newbery committee would have given it the big gold sticker. 

*Well... mostly. It turns out that the legend at the center of the novel may be the result of a misunderstanding on Kelly's part. They really do play the Heynal from the tower of St. Mary's, and it really does break off in the middle, but the story behind the broken note may have been invented by Kelly on the basis of a misinterpretation: "Kelly, who was teaching at the Jagiellonian University on a scholar exchange in 1925-26, admitted that he did not speak the Polish language very well when he wrote the story, and had relied on French-speaking friends to translate."

Monday, February 8, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik van Loon (1922)

 So let's start at the very beginning. Word on the street is, it's a very good place to start.

The first Newbery Medal, handed out in 1922, went to Hendrik van Loon's mammoth history of the world, the portentously-titled The Story of Mankind. The book was something of a sensation at the time, but its reputation (along with that of its author) has faded as the years have rolled along. I'm not sure I've ever met a contemporary child who's read the thing, and John "Mr. Schu" Schumaker of Nerdbery fame declared it the worst Newbery winner ever.

However, after finishing The Story of Mankind (in its original version, rather than any of the later editions that attempt to bring the history up to the present), I have to say that this is one that, while not without its faults, seems unfairly maligned.

Let's get those faults out of the way first. Although it has a bibliography at the end, The Story of Mankind doesn't have any source notes or footnotes. At the time of his Newbery win, van Loon was head of the Department of Social Sciences at Antioch College in Ohio, so one would figure that he could be trusted with the facts anyway, but there is at least one brief section of the book, consisting of letters purporting to be written by Aesculapius Cultellus and Gladius Ensa on the subject of the rise of Christianity, that's woven from whole cloth. This isn't history as we'd expect it to be presented now, and it was, in fact, the subject of some controversy even during van Loon's lifetime.

By the standards of his time, van Loon was remarkably forward-thinking and progressive, castigating many of his contemporaries as "apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much." However, to a 21st-century reader, he can seem hopelessly backward, and his unshakable belief in Progress feels naive at best. It's also easy to see where his true expertise lies. Van Loon was born and raised in the Netherlands (he did not become a US citizen until 1919), and his doctoral thesis was reworked into his first book, The Fall of the Dutch Republic (1913). When he's discussing the history of northwest Europe, he is clearly knowledgeable and authoritative. On the other hand, his grasp on the western hemisphere often seems shaky; it would be hard to find present-day defenders for his assertion that, during the second half of the 19th century, conditions were significantly better for African-Americans than for European factory workers.

Having said all that, however, The Story of Mankind does still have a lot to offer. The foreword, in which van Loon describes his boyhood experience of climbing to the top of the Old Saint Lawrence Church tower in Rotterdam, remains a compelling personal essay, and it's not the only occasion on which van Loon's prose bursts into a near-poetry of surprising feeling. The opening lines of the book, for instance, are worth quoting in their entirety:

"High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by."

Some readers find van Loon's self-insertions and personal digressions tiresome, but those were some of my favorite portions of the book. I especially loved his fearless examinations of his own biases and points of view, and his honesty regarding his opinion of his own writing. ("I suggested that we destroy the whole manuscript and begin once more from the beginning. This, however, the publishers would not allow.")

While time may not have been especially kind to the reputation of van Loon's work in general or The Story of Mankind in particular, it still stands as an entirely reasonable selection by the librarians who handed out the Newbery. Five other books were honored, but none of them is more than a footnote today, and nothing else from the 1921 publishing year stands out as an inexplicable omission.   

Thanks for taking this first trip in our

More to follow soon!