Saturday, August 06, 2022

Walter R. Brooks, The Clockwork Twin (1937)

Here's this!  More human children!  What happened to our previous human children, Ella and Everett? you might ask.  Shouldn't you do, I don't know, anything with them before you introduce new ones all willy-nilly?  I'll tell you: they've “gone abroad for a year with Mrs. Bean's sister, and the Beans are alone again.”  Oh.  Okay.  Welp.  I'm pretty sure they're just written out of the series after this without a further thought, so don't think too much about them!

But anyway.  There's this kid, Adoniron, who lives with his evil aunt and uncle.  Damn them!  But he escapes, and he ends up meeting the animals (which include two new ones, a dog named Georgie and a rooster named Ronald) and going to live on the Bean farm.  Aunt and Uncle try to recover him, but are ultimately foiled and let him go.  This book is notable for introducing Mr. Bean's Uncle Ben, who is an inventor and plays a part in many future books.  Here, he invents the titular clockwork twin, Bertram, an automaton designed so Adoniron will be less lonely (although this makes little sense; it's piloted by Ronald, and they're not trying to trick Adoniron into thinking it's a real person or anything, so what's the use?).  And then the latter part of the book treats of the search for his probable lost brother, Byram.  Turns out he was kidnapped by gypsies.  But they rescue him, and then there's this really dumb thing where both Adoniron and Byram have middle names that start with 'R,' and they've decided that if that stands for the same thing in both case, it means they're really brothers.  But neither of them want to say what it is, because it's allegedly silly, and they won't tell each other, because what if it's not the same?  Then one or the other of them would have, uh, a strategic advantage!  Can't have that.  But in the end they work things out.  Brooks' 'R' is for “Rollin.”  Is that a silly name?

WAIT JUST A DAMN MINUTE.

Why, what is it?

You know damn well what it is!  Spill!

Right, yes, okay.  You know, I have long had a theory, which is that one thing that I think gets lost in the discussion of the proper nomenclature for Romani people is that when Americans talk about “gypsies,” they are not talking about an ethnic group.  They might as well be saying “carnies:” vaguely or not-so-vaguely disreputable traveling performers.  And I still think there's something to this! Probably!  But alas, Brooks does not do me any favors in that regard: “I am Romany—what you call gypsy.”  Dammit, Brooks, how dare you throw doubt on my idea.  Though I'm still not exactly convinced that Brooks really has a handle on things, because whatever you call them, what are these people doing in upstate New York?  Also, the only names we hear for any of them are “Jeff” and “Adam,” which somehow don't seem like authentic Romani names.  Well, regardless: there's really very little racially problematic stuff in Brooks work.  This is the most dubious part we've seen so far, but it's just one chapter; grit your teeth and deal with it, I say.

Aside from that, the book's actually really good.  Lots of cool farm life stuff.  I have a LOT of random observations I want to make, so for the next part of this write-up we will abandon any pretense of organizational unity.

First, I've just GOTTA hit on “animals eating one another” again, because there are a few really egregious moments in that regard.  So Ronald is getting married to Charles' and Henrietta's daughter Cackletta, a name that was apparently not just made up for Mario & Luigi.  And: 

Then a skunk named Sniffy Wilson, who lived back in the woods, said he guessed he'd like to kiss the bride too.  But Sniffy was suspected of having eaten one of Cackletta's little sisters, who had gone into the woods to pick wintergreen berries one day and had never come back.

Dude!  That is dark as hell!  And it's just thrown in like it ain't nothin'!  

And another one: all the animals are trying to earn medals after Ronald gets one for his work with Bertram:

All the animals had gone around being brave, in the hope that they would get medals, but so far none had been awarded.  Henrietta had come nearest it, for she had jumped into the pond to rescue a grasshopper.  But then she had eaten the grasshopper, so that didn't count.

This is the part where I kinda start suspecting that Brooks is doing this on purpose.  It's just too much.  Not that I don't appreciate it!

Mr. Boomschmidt's circus makes a return appearance here, and we hear a little about how his circus works:

Mr Boomschmidt and his partner, Mr. Hackenmeyer, didn't believe that animals should be shut up in cages.  And so their circus was quite different from most circuses. . . . Of course people who had never been to this show before were sometimes scared, and you can't really blame them, for it is a little terrifying to walk into the circus grounds and come face to face with a Bengal tiger, or to be tapped on the shoulder and turn around to have a boa constrictor say: “May I show you to a seat?”

I mean, it's nice that they're humane to their animals, though I would further suggest that, in this world, it actually wouldn't be surprising to see animals behaving like this.  You're thinking of our world, which is entirely different.  Still, the main thing I want to note is the animals' weird, unspoken status in the series: all the animals in the series—at least ones owned by “good” people—are treated humanely and, it appears, basically given unlimited autonomy.  But...they're still basically slaves, yeah?  This never becomes an issue because the series never makes it one, but it's hard not to notice it.  I mean, maybe not quite; you've got to figure that any animal on the farm or the circus would be free to quit if they wanted to.  It's just that—in stark contrast to his policy re animals devouring each other—Brooks never allows it to come to the surface.

Right, so at one point a heckler's son at the circus challenges Bertram to a wrestling match, which Ronald doesn't want to do but can't get out of.  And: “'now I'll show you something,' said Benjy, and he leaped at Betram and threw his arms around Bertram's neck and twisted.”  Let it be noted that this child's opening wresting gambit is to try to break his opponent's neck.  Good times.

Can we talk a little about Freddy himself?  Because he can really throw some shade when we wants to, in quite amusing ways.  So he's trying to “infiltrate” a meeting with Georgie, and he's dressed as a human, which fools the near-sighted matron.  But there are no dogs allowed:

“Dear me,” said Freddy, “why I never go anywhere without my dear little Georgie.  Still, of course, rules are rules, aren't they?”  He leaned down and patted Georgie kindly on the head.  “There, Georgie, you run along and play with the nice little boys.  Maybe you'll see somebody you know.  And please be a good little doggy.  Mamma'll be out pretty soon.”

That moment is also interesting because it shows an example of how, depending on the circumstance, the animals can seem more or less human.  In a world where animals can talk, you wouldn't think the dynamic could really work, with Freddy mockingly condescending to him like that.  And yet, it does.  These things seem to be rather fluid in this series.

Anyway, here's Freddy when a trustee at the meeting thinks he looks poor:

“Then you think a lot of foolish things,” said Freddy angrily.  “There may be several reasons why my clothes are queer.  Just as there may be several reasons why you are so fat.  I may think it is because you eat too much.  But I wouldn't say so unless I knew.  Just because you have a gold watch-chain I wouldn't say that you stole it unless I was pretty certain.  Just because—"

THIS IS FUN.  

Finally, I just want to make clear that these books are full of these little throwaway moments that build whole worlds and fill you with glee.  “How about that friend of yours, Jinx, that wasp—what's his name?  Fellow that came in first in that free-for-all insects' cross-country run last year.”  “When the animals put on shows, as they sometimes did, Freddy was always given the leading part, and his Hamlet was something to see.”

When I started reading these, I didn't really know what to expect.  Would these in any sense hold up, or would they, more likely, prove to be more quaint curiosities than anything else?  Well, I have my answer.  These are quite probably the best children's books I have ever read, and certainly not just for children.  Obviously Brooks isn't literally forgotten, but I don't feel like it's really sufficiently embedded in the culture how great he was.  If you're not reading these to your kids, I dunno, call Child Protective Services, I say.

5 Comments:

Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

The Grassoper being eaten felt like purposable a dark joke.

Freddy having a dog (If I understand correctly) make me think of Garfield where cats can talk and have their own social world but Oddie - by the universe standards - is just a normal dog.

You honestly convince me to look up these books and read them :)

3:47 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

>> Lots of cool farm life stuff.

This is honestly how I feel about "Donald's Grandma Duck" (1950), Barks' first story using GD as the main character. The farm is such a real place, with lots of authentic details like Grandma's old-fashioned furniture and appliances. And the fact that HDL can't sleep because of the lack of street noise! That's so real.

>> These are quite probably the best children's books I have ever read...

I take that with a grain of salt. It's clear that there's much to enjoy here, but surely Brooks hardly reaches the top shelf when it comes to children's literature. What about Alice in Wonderland? Winnie-the-Pooh? The Wind in the Willows? Roald Dahl? Watership Down?

8:39 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

...Dr. Seuss...

9:09 AM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

It's not Freddy having a dog; it's Freddy teasing and making fun of a dog. But the mutable nature of that dog or other animals is still interesting.

Anyway, okay, The Wind in the Willows is better. And Watership Down, if we're putting it in the same category. But Alice in Wonderland? Not necessarily even really a kids' book, and in any case, *I* certainly don't like it as much. And Doctor Seuss feels like a completely different kind of book. Granted, I should've been more specific and said "children's novel."

9:25 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

I remember enjoying "Alice" as a kid but it was way more fun book to explore as an adult when you dig into difrent layers, interpretation, finaly get some of the jokes, ironies etc. even if I belive half (if not more) things people tend to attribute to Alice wasn't necessarily Lewis Carroll intention... But people also did change the meaning of Don Quijote many times and I'm fine with that. It just woudn't shock me if Carroll was writing what was (for him anyway) nothing more then a "fun childreen story, with clever rhymes and silly things going on" and some themes either came out naturally or people dig to much into it and it stick.

One of my favorite interpretations of Alice i by agood friend of my who is psychialogist and she clames that "Alice" for her is about a girl who wants to die... It would take to long to explain [she do points out to many behaviors normal people don't pay atention to] but for me this morbid interpration oddly fits the tone of the book. Yet, even if this interpration would fit 100%, it's not necasarilly what Carrols was thinking and it could all easly been subconcious.

I honestly had similiar interpretation about Winnie The Pooh that in the final chapter Christopher Robbins is talking about the fact he will die some day... Oh, and this is not something I had idea for recently, I was thinking about it as a child. The final chapter pretty feels like a wake, and then Christopher ask Pooh to always remember him when he is gone and none of the characters even taken into consideration he may be back... Perhaps it's do to the fact that I never both into the concept of "leaving your childhood behind". Funny enough, when I reread the book as an adult and I had in back of my head what was I thinking as a child... and oddly enough this interpretation work even better. BUT AGIAN - This is my interpretation.

I think it's wonderful that "Pooh" and "Alice" are similiar victim of being such multilayer stories that people can give them many interpretation... I just woudn't be sure most of them where the creators intentions.

3:36 AM  

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