At tor.com, Mari Ness reviews another of the really old, really charming animal stories that a good many people might remember better (or only) as a Disney film.
I read Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations a million or so times, in the period before I started reading SFF. But I haven’t read it since I was an adult. It’s so interesting to see a thorough review that sees the subtext, including the subtext I most likely wouldn’t have noticed if I read the book again yesterday.
On the surface, at least, this 1950s novel might seem like a work wrapped in comfort and nostalgia for the good old days of English country homes—a spaniel even hints about this when Pongo and Missis shelter in his grand home. Much of the book is focused on respect for the law—the dogs, for instance, hate to leave the house without their proper collars and tags. Partly, they are afraid of getting caught without them and sent to the pound, but also, they hate the thought of being illegal—even though this particular law is enforced by their pets. Other moments, including pretty much everything in the last few pages, focus on and celebrate upper class families and the Anglican church.
But these messages are frequently subverted: with the unorthodox, near group marriage hinted at for Pongo, Missis, Perdita and a surprise fourth character; the fact that the most intelligent and practical characters are all dogs; the way no one hesitates when Nanny Butler takes over the traditionally male role of house butler; a gloriously happy scene towards the end of the book where all 97 puppies (and one cat) gleefully destroy property worth several million—with the complete approval of the text; and another gloriously happy scene that allows one of those expensive English country houses to go, as they say, completely to the dogs. It all adds to the fun.
I did get that Cruella de Vil was a real devil, though. That is blatant enough I’m sure practically every young reader realizes it. For me, unlike for Mari Ness, Cruella de Vil did not “take over the book,” though. For me the book was primarily about the dogs and everything else was incidental. Everything I read in those days was heavy on the animal pov, so for me the dalmatians were the memorable characters, no matter how flamboyant the villain might have been.
On a side note, dalmatian breeders generally hated the movies. I knew several who quit breeding for a couple years after the live-action 101 Dalmatian movie came out, because they knew the demand for puppies would skyrocket and that most of those homes would not be suitable for dalmatians, which are often great dogs, but not always the easiest dogs to handle.
But! The take home message: if you sorta thought the movies were charming but forgettable, you might still find the original book worth picking up. I didn’t love the sequel as well, though I liked it okay. It’s called The Starlight Barking, if anybody would like to check it out, and it has very definite fantasy elements.