16 August 2011

Travels with Dodsworth

This summer saw the release of Dodsworth in Rome, the fourth volume in the easy reader series about Dodsworth and his accidental companion, Duck. It's an amusing book in a series which consistently entertains and has the capacity to continue for many volumes yet as the pair bumbles their way across the globe.

The journey actually started, sans Duck, in a junk yard, where the underachieving Dodsworth, whose motto was "try to do as little as possible" would seek out items to sell in his thrift shop. The Pink Refrigerator, the picture book which first introduced Dodsworth, is that rare achievement: dryly funny and infinitely wise at less than 35 pages. Unlike the protagonist of David McPhail's Mole Music, who actively seeks out meaning in his life, or the lackadaisical Al in Arthur Yorink' Hey Al, who learns to find paradise close at home, Dodsworth is quite content with the routine of the hum drum existence which asks so little of him. It takes the intervention of a magical refrigerator (yes--I said magical refrigerator) to open his eyes to the wonders of life not just around him but within his own grasp. It is from these philosophical roots that the more routine hijinks of the road trip emerge.
I have great affection for the Dodsworth series. Yet while I find the books to be a cut above many written at the easy reader level, I feel that they lack something of the magic of The Pink Refrigerator. The character of Duck irritates me more than he engages me. A reread of the books reminded me that Duck gatecrashed Dodsworth's world tour, and Dodsworth is now essentially stuck with Duck until he can return him to his home and friend at Hodge's Cafe. While Duck's (mis)behaviour often precipitates the action of the books, and as a result of wild-goose chases (so to speak) gives Dodworth an opportunity to tour a given city, his inability to learn from his experiences drives me nuts. Dodsworth has essentially become the straight man in his own series, which seems a little bit unfair since he sets off at the end of The Pink Refrigerator to "find an ocean," not babysit a cooky duck.

Still, the adventures of Dodsworth and Duck have a whimsical innocence which I can only describe as Capraesque. No sooner does calamity befall them (such as when Duck makes paper airplanes out of all their Euros and launches them from the top of Eiffel Tower,) then good fortune smiles upon them (a local bakery hires them to deliver bread.) In London, Dodsworth and Duck are separated, and find themselves in a trading places scenario reminiscent of The Prince and the Pauper and concludes with a sleepover at Buckingham Palace. And in Rome, it is actually Duck who has the best line in the book: when Dodsworth explains that tourists throw coins over their shoulders into the Trevi Fountain to ensure that they return to Rome someday, Duck asks, "Why leave in the first place?"

A fair question. But leave they eventually will--once they pay back all the money Duck pinched from the Trevi Fountain. There is a big wide world to discover (I'm still hoping they make it to Boston.) And although they ferried from New York to Paris, and crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon, Dodsworth has yet to stand before an ocean and discover if its reality lives up to his own imagination. Can he return home a fuller--and fulfilled-- individual because of his experiences? Will he be able to do more than "just enough" once he is back home with his thrift shop and returns to everyday life, whose promises will be limited only by his own definition of "limited"? These are big questions for a series aimed at emerging readers, but they are at the heart of Dodsworth's quest. So even if Duck's hijinks tend to distract Dodsworth from his original initiative, the challenge of the pink elevator--"keep exploring"--is a mandate that holds relevance for readers of any age.


Jen Robinson said...

I adore Dodsworth, too! Like you, I hope these books continue for a long time.

Tanya said...

I've never heard of these books! They sound fabulous! Just to clarify, Tim Egan of Dodsworth is not the same Timothy Egan who wrote the adult NF title, THE BIG BURN?

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Hi Tanya,

They are indeed two different Tim Egans.

Thanks for stopping by!

CLM said...

I need more books like this for my first grader!

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