Monday, July 25, 2022

Walter R. Brooks, Freddy Goes to Florida (1927)

When I was a child, the Freddy the Pig novels--of which Brooks wrote twenty-five--played a big part in my literary consumption (he also wrote the stories that inspired Mr. Ed).  I remember I really liked them, but I hadn't read any (or, more likely, had any read to me by my dad) in thirty-odd years, so my memories are hazy and I thought it would be interesting and hopefully fun to revisit the series.  It was out-of-print for a long time, but the whole thing was reissued as ebooks in I think 2014.

I realize that I'm in danger of just assuming everyone knows what these books are, when that may not be the case.  Well, there are animals.  On a farm.  They can talk.  The main one is Freddy.  He is a pig.  Any questions?  For some reason in this first book, he's habitually referred to as "Freddy, the pig."  Brooks hadn't decided at this early point that he was going to be the main character; this book--and probably the next few--are really ensemble pieces.  The book's original title--this boggles my mind--was To and Again.  REALLY?  There wasn't an editor around who could've suggested, hey, maybe the title should suggest anything whatsoever about the book?  Well, I guess it suggests that it's an odyssey of sorts, which I suppose is true, but don't go looking for Homeric references.  Although Ulysses had been published five years prior, Joyce's influence on Brooks is not apparent.

Well but so: these animals live in a farm somewhere in upstate New York, I think, and they're kinda bummed out because it's cold and the farmer, Mr. Bean, can't afford amenities to make their lives more comfortable, so they get the idea from a migrating swallow, hey, we should go south for the winter too!  Only some of them go, though.  The rest have to stay to help with the farm.  The travelers are Hank the horse; Mrs. Wiggins the cow; Charles and Henrietta the rooster and hen; Freddy the pig; Robert the dog; Jinx the cat; Emma and Alice the ducks; Eek, Quik, Eeny, and Cousin Augustus the mice; and Mr. and Mrs. Webb the spiders.  Thank you, thank you.  Very little of the book actually takes place in Florida (although I DO remember that I learned the word "peninsula" here); they lounge around there for a while, and at one point are almost eaten by alligators, "but after a while they got tired of doing nothing and began to long for new adventures"--huh, I said there was nothing of the Odyssey in here, but that sounds very much like Tennyson).  So most of it is them going, well, to and then again, having very low-impact "adventures," most of which involve foiling robbers.  There's also a kinda weird part where they go through Washington DC and meet a bunch of unnamed Senators and also the President (Coolidge?).  If there's any real political valence to any of this, though, I couldn't begin to tell you what (weird detail where the band in Washington plays "Marching through Georgia")..  It's interesting to read this and realize, hey, in the beginning, the animals could not speak with humans.  That would change pretty quickly, though I can't say exactly when.

So that's all well and good, but to give a useful sense of this book, you have to look at how it's written, and the answer is...not great.  I mean, not horrible, either, but--although it's possible I'm just in deep denial--I am absolutely positive that later books in the series would get a lot better in this regard (If nothing else, they definitely did a better job of characterizing the animals).  How do I even describe it?  There's this kind of over-explanatory, faintly condescending tone to a lot of the proceedings.  So at one point they get an alarm clock, and how do they wind it? you may be anxiously wondering.  Well:

And this is the way they did it.  Jack [another dog whom they befriend] held the clock in his mouth, and Robert took hold of the winder with his teeth, and they twisted.  Sometimes it took them half an hour to do it, but they always did it.  And then the clock was wound up, they wound the alarm.  But the thing you set the alarm with, to make it go off at a certain time in the morning, was so small that neither Robert nor Jack could get hold of it properly.  And so when they had got it all wound, Charles would take hold of the thing with his beak and set it for whatever time they wanted to get up.

Argh!  Stop!  I do not require this information!  Or:

The reason he walked on the ceiling was because that was the safest place for him to be.  He knew that on the walls or the floor he was much more likely to be seen, but people hardly ever look up at the ceiling except when they are in bed.  And then, too, if you see a spider on the floor, it is easy to run over and step on him, and that is a pretty difficult thing to do if he is on the ceiling.

Yes, I think the average ten-year-old might infer why a spider might want to stick to the ceiling!  We're okay!  Crikey!

So there's a lot of that.  And also like this.  So these two bad dudes kidnap Hank and Mrs. Wiggins, and our heroes must save them, which they do and the robbers are fucked.  FUCKED, I say:

It was not a very pleasant way, because there was no road on the other side of the river, and to walk across fields in your stocking-feet is very painful.  The sticks and stones hurt like anything.  And they were wet through, and had lost their guns, and when they got opposite their house, they had to jump in and swim across the river again.  And then they found the horse and the cow gone, and a big hole in the side of the barn.

And when they got in the house, they were angrier still, for there was the parchesi board on the floor, and the parchesi men had rolled off into corners and under the stove and behind things.  If the floor had been clean, it wouldn't have been so bad, but it was terribly dirty because they never wiped their boots on the mat when they came in, and so it was almost impossible to find the men.  Indeed, there were three that they never did find.  And so they never played parchesi any more at all.

Man, Brooks is really intent on making sure you understand that these extremely minor villains' lives are now blighted forevermore.  I get the impression he's doing this out of a particular understanding of how children react to things: you HATE these guys, don't you?  You want to see them punished, don't you?  C'mon, don't you?  Isn't it great?!?"  I dunno, Walter--maybe they do, and maybe I would've when I was small; I don't remember how I actually reacted to this at the time.  But these days, it ain't doing it for me.

So yes, this is a pretty creaky book.  Still, it has a certain very low-key charm, and a kind of goofiness that has its appeal.  I like the way Brooks keeps making weird generalizations about different animals: "Cats very seldom make promises, but when they do they always keep them."  "Mr. Webb, however, was firm in his decision, as spiders are apt to be."  Okay.  Also, Kurt Wiese's interior and cover art is a delight.  Happily, he would go on to illustrate the entire series.  Anyway, I maintain faith that it will improve from here, so look forward to hearing what I think about Freddy Goes to the North Pole.


Blogger Pan MiluĊ› pontificated to the effect that...

Sounds like type of book that would spark my imagination when I was 6. Animals traveling, having adventures, figuring things on their own, working together as a team, with diffrent species having diffrent skills... When I was a kid this was my cup of tea :)

6:25 PM  

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