Pages: 191 (Hardback)
Series: The Hundred and One Dalmatians #1
Dodie Smith’s first novel, I Capture the Castle, sold well over a million copies throughout the world. Now she has written her first book for children. Grown-ups are going to enjoy it quite as much. And no dog who can read will be able to put it down.
It is funny. It is exciting. It has an endearing warmth of heart. Pongo and Missis, a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs, live with Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, a young married couple of humans. The Dearlys’ ex-nannies, now a cook and a butler, are also part of the happy household. Fifteen delightful puppies are born, to be adored by all. And then – the puppies are stolen.
By whom? Top Men at Scotland Yard were frankly baffled. but one of the keenest brains in Dogdom was at work – Pongo had a clue! Nearby lived a sinister woman named Cruella de Vil who had a passion for furs. She had shown a marked interest in the puppies – and had been wishing she had a white fur coat with black spots.
[Blurb cut for extensive spoilers]
Dog lovers of all ages will delight in Pongo, Missis and their family, especially the tiny Cadpig, who is crazy about television. Then there is Perdita, the touching lost dog. And a Great Dane, a gallant Spaniel, a shrewd old Sheepdog, and many other dogs of various breeds play important parts – not to mention a couple of cats, a horse and some kindly cows. Animals, humans, London and the country scene are charmingly portrayed in the many illustrations by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone.
Now it’s probably worth mentioning before I go into a glowing review that 1) I am a massive dog person – to the extent I haven’t grown out of pointing and going ‘pretty doggy!’ whenever I see one, and 2) I’m not approaching this book fresh but as a reread of one of my childhood favourites. And we should probably throw in a 3) there as well – my copy of the book is a wonderfully illustrated little 1963 hardback which my dad passed onto me, having bought it with his own tenth-birthday money after falling in love with the Disney film. It’s an absolutely beautiful object and everything about it only adds to the charm of the book. In fact I almost found it hard to read with both him and my sisters constantly peering over my shoulder or stealing the book whenever I set it down to look at the black and white pictures.
But onto the review…
Before Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Lyra Belaqua or any of those modern protagonists were about, before I was even introduced to Roald Dahl, The Hundred and One Dalmatians was a firm and familiar favourite. I’d seen the film (an incredibly poor quality pirated VHS tape my dad had got my big sister when they lived in Hong Kong) endless times, I’d had the book read to me by my parents (Dad was better with the voices), and, above all, I had listened to the audio-cassette, narrated by Joanna Lumley until it wore out (if anyone can track this down on MP3 I will love you forever). In fact I was so familiar with the story I’m not entirely sure that I had actually read it before this, I think as a child I might actually have been too scared of damaging dad’s copy to risk it. Point is, this book is a very old and comforting friend – which is just what I needed last weekend.
It’s a warm, fluffy, little story full of rather old-fashioned British charm and a gentle but witty narration that should appeal to all ages. True, the gender roles are old fashioned – one of the nannies wearing trousers is regarded as shocking and Pongo’s rather ditsy wife is simply called ‘Missis Pongo’ (Perdita is a separate character) but it’s all so quaintly done that it simply brings a smile. Also I can’t condemn the book totally on those grounds because Cruella de Vil’s ‘I am the last of my family so I made my husband change his name to mine’ was a total revelation for me as a child and I can probably attribute this one line (despite it being said by the villain) to my strong opinions on taking a husbands name. Here it’d probably be interesting to compare and contrast the dynamics of Cruella de Vil’s marriage to that of Pongo and Missis who ‘had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage but was still called Missis by most people’ – but I’m not the person to do that, I love this book too much to go too deep into any analysis. Lets just say that whatever the intention (and I think Dodie Smith is actually gently mocking sexist attitudes ‘Pongo and the Spaniel laughed in a very masculine way’ rather than deliberately propagating them) little-me took away a very feminist message from Cruella de Vil. Only once, in fact did the book really disappoint on this sort of ‘value-slippage’ front – the depiction of a gang of ‘gipsies’ trying to steal valuable dogs. It’s an episode I don’t remember from my childhood and that I’m going to try to forget about again now, thankfully it only takes up a page or two and the rest of the book is lovely.
Pretty much everyone must know the basic storyline by now – Pongo and Missis’ fifteen puppies are stolen. While the humans are baffled the dog community of Great Britain gets to work, and though the Twilight Bark locate the puppies at Hell Hall – where Cruella de Vil plans to turn them into fur coats as soon as they get big enough. Pongo and Missis must adventure across England, braving bad weather, stone-throwing children, hunger, fire, and being captured by the police, to reach and rescue their puppies, assisted by a string of helpful canines who help them evade capture. A lot more happens than in either Disney version (though there are thankfully considerably less raccoons) and I was surprised by how many of the events on Pongo and Missis journey to the puppies I had forgotten.
My favourite bit, of course, is the idea of dogs having a human-like society and the cameos of all the different types of dogs and the different personalities and class backgrounds they’ve been given from the dedicated and hard-working Great Dane to the kindly old upper class Spaniel, the smart, military, sheepdog, the ‘feather brained as well as feather tailed‘ Irish Setter (my cousins used to own these and they really are feather brained), and most of all the Staffie terrier who gets no greater joy than cannonballing into people’s chests. As a dog person there is very very little about this book that I don’t love – and the gorgeous illustrations in this copy of all the different breeds involved in the Twilight Bark is just the icing on the cake.
A lovely, lovely, children’s classic that was just the sort of warm fuzzy nostalgia I needed right. The intelligence and warmth of the narration also makes it a book that parents will probably enjoy reading to their child and can get some humour out of themselves.
A quick word of warning though – the sequel, Starlight Barking, is very, veeeeeery different. It’s certainly an ‘interesting’ read, but The Hundred and One Dalmatians may well read better as a standalone and I wouldn’t recommend one just because you liked the other.