Audible.com gave away several short books as part of a promotion for members in July. The Story of Doctor Dolittle was one of them.
The audiobook starts out with an introduction to the tenth edition that praises the book as the first real children’s book since Alice in Wonderland. But since I really did not like Alice in Wonderland that did nothing to entice me to the story.
The story (published in 1920) is set in the 1820s. Doctor Dollittle is a good doctor, but his love of animals eventually drives all of his human clients away. After all of the human clients leave, Dolittle starts learning animal language from his parrot. Eventually he learns how to speak to all of the animals and starts treating animals.
He eventually becomes a vet in order to support himself and the large menagerie of animals that accumulates around them. That works well for a while, but eventually people stop bringing their animals because Dolittle saves an African crocodile who comes to live with him.
Again Dolittle and his animals become very poor. The animals start working to clean the house and grow food so they do not all starve. (Doctor Dolittle never worries about money and eventually an owl takes over managing the money because Dolittle is so bad at it.)
Dolittle becomes known all around the world to animals because of his ability to talk to them and heal them. Eventually a monkey that Dolittle healed comes to him to ask him to go to Africa and help a large group of monkeys that have had a serious outbreak. The trip to Africa follows the comic theme of the rest of the book. Dolittle can do little other than talk to animals and heal them, so the animals end up doing much of the work.
The African portion especially is quite racist by the standards of our age and shows the bias of British colonialism. But it was not intended to be racist. Since it is in the public domain there are a variety of edited versions now available that minimize some of the racist elements.
The books are known for the illustrations. This website highlights the illustrations, including some very nice full color pictures that came out in later editions.
Overall Doctor Dolittle seems to capture the comic nature of a lot of children’s books and other than the racism and colonialism, it translates fairly well to modern readers (unlike Alice in Wonderland that has a lot of subtle cultural references and satire that is does not translate more than 100 years later.)