Did you know One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a middle grade novel before it was a movie? And did you know it was a Christmas story?
I’d forgotten all this when my youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, watched a bunch of classic Disney movies on a long drive this summer. We recently watched it again, and I remembered how much I loved the novel as a kid. I’m reading it to my kids now, and they love it, too.
The movie is a very good abridgment of the novel. So if you liked the characters and the fantasy world of the dogs, you’ll love the book, which gives much greater details than the movie.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a young couple, the Dearlys, who live in London with their Dalmatians, Pongo and Missus. Their neighbor is Cruella de Vil. She lives for furs. She only married her husband because he is a furrier. Missus gives birth to fifteen puppies, who are stolen. Pongo figures out that Cruella has taken them because she wants to make a Dalmatian coat.
When Scotland Yard says it is “Frankly Baffled”, Pongo and Missus decide it’s up to them to find and rescue their puppies. They use the Twilight Barking. A dog barks a message, and the next dog to hear it barks it on. They spread the news all over England.
A week before Christmas, Pongo and Missus receive word that their puppies are being held out in the country at the ancestral home of the de Vils. They set out, relying on the dog network to provide food, shelter and information, while trying to avoid all people because their “pets”, as they call the Dearlys, have advertised that they have gone missing, too.
The details of the dog network are wonderfully imagined. Once Pongo and Missus bark that they are leaving, the dogs swing into action, working out a route, that will get them to the home. Other animals help out, as if they are an underground network of resistance in enemy territory, as author Danny Peary points out in his book Guide for the Film Fanatic.
Cruella is one of the great villains of fiction, and in the book, we learn more about her. She puts pepper on all her food, and when one of the pups nips at her ear, it tastes like pepper. We also get some of the history of the de Vil family and how their country home came to be called Hell Hall.
The main reason this story has stayed with me all these years is because it has one of the best descriptions of evil that I’ve come across.
At the end of the book, Cruella’s cat comes to live with the Dearlys and Pongo and Missus. She tells them the de Vils are financially ruined. Missus says she feels sorry for Mr. de Vil. He seems so meek, and Cruella dominates him so much that she made him take her last name.
But the cat says not to bother. “He’s as bad as Cruella. The only different is she’s strong and bad and he’s weak and bad.”
When I read that at as a tween, I knew it had great insight. Even now when I create bad guys, I often think about whether he or she is strong and bad or weak and bad. And like the cat said, both kinds of personalities are equally evil.
What books from your childhood have always stayed with you?