Saturday, August 13, 2022

Walter R. Brooks, Freddy the Politician (1939)

There is a lot to say about this book, but before anything else, have a look at the most bonkers quote I ever expect to see in this series:

Mr. Bean knew that his animals could talk, but he was a pretty conventional man.  That means that he didn't like new things very much.  He liked to have everything go on as it had when he was a boy.  And so it made him feel uncomfortable and a little embarrassed when he heard animals talk.  He just couldn't get used to it.

Comment is probably superfluous here.  Brooks, you maniac!

Anyway.  I kind of like that original title better, but here we are.  The Beans—who were presented as super-poor in the first book but now are apparently rolling in it—are going on a six-month trip to Europe with Byram and Adoniron, leaving the animals in charge.  What could go wrong?  The opening scene takes place on a cold, windy night, as some of the house animals—the dogs, mice, and Jinx—discuss how they're going to handle this, and there is discussion of starting a bank and then maybe even a whole republic to help them manage things while the humans are gone.  Brooks is really good at intertwining exposition like this with slice-of-life stuff.  It is to be admired.  

Anyway, what happens is that some woodpeckers appear, having flown in from Washington and therefore knowing about politics.  There's John Quincy, his father Grover, and his son X.  You see, everyone in this family is meant to be named after a US president, but they'd run out by the time they got to X.  This doesn't seem like a sustainable system.  The woodpeckers become involved with the bank—and they seem to have a certain suspicious tricksiness to them—and then decide to run Grover for President, against Mrs. Wiggins.  And man, the politics in this book are NUTS.  I wanted to see if Brooks was making any kind of comment on contemporary politics, or...well, the book was released in 1939, so international affairs would've had to be on just about everyone's mind.  But if he's trying to be satirical, he's being pretty oblique about it.  It's really hard to tell what he was going for.

Still, there's some pretty hair-raising stuff here by any standard.  Freddy talking about the possibility of Simon running and winning: “of course, if he did get elected, we'd all get together and throw him out.  But that's revolution, and we don't want a revolution on this farm.”  You know, Brooks, if you'd just left out that last part—“but that's revolution”—you could just about have gotten away with saying, oh, I just meant we'd vote him out next time—but as it stands, our heroes, who are putatively trying to build a democracy, seem to have a very strong anti-democratic streak.  And another thing: it's decided early on that bugs can't vote in this election, because there are too many of them and it's not practical.  But what about the Webbs?  They're “bugs,” but we like them!  What to do?!  “They're bugs all right, as far as I know,” said Freddy.  “But Mr. Webb is a very distinguished bug.  And Mrs. Webb is a very charming one.  They've certainly got as good a right to vote as anyone on the farm.  Now, that is a problem.”  I mean, you don't have to be looking hard to see really questionable racial overtones.  But fortunately(?), the Webbs are willing to sacrifice their votes so as not to cause trouble.  I mean, it's true that allowing all insects to have suffrage would be practically speaking impossible, so you know how you deal with that?  By not bringing it up.  This isn't hard!

Ooh, and they also have a fun fight song for their party, to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic:”

When the Farmer's Party marches let all other parties cower;

We will shatter and defeat them with our overwhelming power;

We will scatter them like chickens in a sudden thundershower

As we march to victory!

And it's like...where is this intense belligerence coming from?  You just decided you were going to start a country and then immediately started stewing about how we're going to rule the roost and no one is going to stop us!  Who even are these other parties you've invented in your head?  Also, it should be noted that Brooks seemingly is unable to conceptualize the idea of multiple parties duking it out; the opposition is portrayed as wholly outsiders—and a little xenophobically, at that.  Here's Jinx:

This is a fine business!  Here we are, a dozen or so of us, who have been with Mr. Bean and done everything of importance that has been done on this farm for years.  And we're turning over the whole farm to be run by a lot of strange birds who haven't lived here any time at all.

And then there's this weird thread of anti-woodpecker prejudice running through the narrative.  “'Well,' said John [a fox], 'I wouldn't take too much woodpecker advice, if I were you.  I don't trust those boys, and that's a fact.  Don't ask me why.  It's just a feeling.  Don't you have those feelings?'”  To which Freddy replies: “Why, you you mention it I guess I do. Weasels, now.  I don't trust weasels.  And I haven't any reason not to, really.  I don't know much about them.  They may be the kindest, nicest people in the world.  But somehow—”  And that looks like it's meant to be an anti-racist riposte, maybe, or at least acknowledgement of the problem, but Brooks doesn't do anything else with it.  Also, the woodpeckers are regularly derisively referred to as “bug-eaters,” which really, really has the appearance of a racial slur.  It's hard to avoid.  Also (and I've probably belabored the point enough, but this is funny), a wasp named Jacob gives us this bit of word salad:

“Being a bug, the election means nothing to me, but I don't like birds, and I don't think a bird would be a good president.  He'd be too careless.  Here's what I mean.  You take this Grover.  He eats bugs, and I don't hold it against him, for it's his nature to do so.  Anyway, he doesn't eat wasps.  And that's just what I mean.  He doesn't like wasps, and yet if I walk up a tree in front of him, chances are he'll make a grab at me.  Why?  He'll only get stung.  I say birds are careless.”

Seriously, WHAT?

Then there's the question of how the election is run, and the answer is, “in a comically nakedly corrupt fashion.”  So Grover's promising all the animals new luxuries if they vote for him, but our heroes show how he can't do that, which changes Henrietta's mind:

Well, this alters matters.  I did want that revolving door, but I haven't been satisfied any of the time that we were doing the right thing in voting for a stranger.  Mrs. Wiggins, I'm happy to tell you that you will get all our votes.

JEEZ, dude!  You're not supposed to discuss vote-selling like this right the hell in public!  You need to at least pretend this stuff isn't going on!

Well, on to the election.  The animals (Brooks usually but not always uses “animals” to basically mean mammals, even though a few of the protagonist are birds) are a bit worried, because Grover is bringing in outsider birds to establish residency (?) so they can vote for him.  So they decide, hey, we can bus in some foreign animals to vote for us!  That's the ticket!  So...we're not even pretending that this election is a referendum on anything other than who can cheat the most effectively?  Is this the most cynical book imaginable, or is Brooks just sleepwalking through it?  Maybe some of both!

Anyway, the birds try to engage in election fraud (I mean, beyond what's already happened), so they give up on the election, and Grover ensconces himself in Betram—the mechanical boy suit—and stages a junta—which is admittedly fairly exciting, though I'm not convinced there's a whole lot of daylight between the two factions, ethically speaking.  Still, the fight is joined, eventually Wiggins is placed in power, and Brooks never makes note of the fact that this so-called republic was founded on the basis of zero (0) legitimate elections.

Then there's the ending, which strikes me as sort of mean-spirited:

“Look Freddy,” said John Quincy, “we don't want to go back to Washington.  Father's going to be pretty hard to live with after this defeat.  He's always terribly grouchy when his pride is hurt, and this has hurt it bad.  Couldn't you keep us on as clerks?  We'd look after things.  You wouldn't have to get here at all if you didn't want to—”

Freddy looked up at them thoughtfully.  It certainly would be nice.  To be president, and have no responsibility at all.  And then he thought: “Responsibility!  That's what Mr. Bean thinks I have.  It would be letting him down to try to get out of responsibility.  And anyway, could I really trust those two?”

He picked up his paintbrush and drew two thick lines through the names of John Quincy and X.

Man, you can't be like that.  You've gotta be nicer.  And I must stress that this idea that Freddy must be Responsible to please Mr. Bean is not a theme that recurs throughout the book.  It's just something tossed out at the last moment.  BAH.

So yes.  I think this book is problematic in a way that its predecessors aren't, but there's still a lot of fun stuff here.  Brooks is just a good comic writer.  Freddy, allegedly learning to ride a bike:  “Huh!” said Freddy.  “I'll show you!”  And he walked very boldly and resolutely out of the door and up to the bicycle, with an expression on his face like an early Christian martyr walking into the lions' den and glad to get it over.”  I mean, that's a step above.  And the metaphor continues a little later:  “'Certainly I'm not afraid!' he said crossly.  He picked up the bicycle, looking this time like an early Christian martyr out of whom the lions have already taken two or three bites.”  Nice!

Okay, what else?  Nitpicking?  Don't mind if I do!  Freddy, we are told, is “the only animal on the farm that can read or write,” but this statement is contradicted within the same book.  There might be other examples, but the one I noted is Alice and Emma, who want to make a banner that says “Hail to Wiggins, Centerboro's Fairest Daughter,” but “neither of them could spell 'daughter,' so they abandoned the idea.”  Sheesh.  It's hard to talk about continuity when the writer is so loose with the facts!  But that does not stop me, and this is extremely important: Mrs. Wiggins is making a flag.  “It was a good deal like the American flag, with two stars for Mr. and Mrs. Bean, and thirteen stripes for the thirteen animals who had taken that famous first trip to Florida.”  Okay.  So first, let us acknowledge how fascinating it is that the animals apparently conceive of their sense of, I don't know, national consciousness originating during the Florida trip.  I mean, obviously Brooks is thinking of them as not having existed before he started writing about them—which is clearly true, but still: huh.  But I must put my foot down: it is not true that there were thirteen animals on the trip to Florida.  There were fifteen: Freddy, Jinx, Hank, Robert, Mrs. Wiggins, Charles, Henrietta, Alice, Emma, Eek, Quik, Eeny, Cousin Augustus, and Mr and Mrs Webb (they were also joined on the way by another dog, Jack).  And if you think, oh, in light of what you just said, Brooks probably isn't counting the spiders, let it be noted that Hank specifically notes “there's stripes for 'em in the flag.”  What two animals aren't being counted, Brooks?  What's your game?

On a related note, Freddy is calculating how many animals there are and how they can be expected to vote, and per his notes, he's the only pig (even though there were definitely more pigs alluded to in Florida, and the only two dogs are Robert and Georgie.  What happened to Jock and Jack?  Yes, they're named Jock and Jack, in spite of being unrelated.  A bit of goof-up, that.  I think Jock was only in the first book, but Jack played a large-ish role in North Pole.  And now he's gone!  No!

I have rambled WAY too much here, but I do feel the need to continue to note examples of the “eating animals” theme.  It's not as prominent here, but Mr. Bean, think the animals are being too noisy, says “henceforth, you animals will confine yourselves to announcements that are really important, or I'll chop up Bertram for kindling and have Ronald fricasseed for Sunday dinner.”  Imagine if you made a mistake at your job and your boss's response was to threaten to kill and eat you.  What a world!


Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

I did start to wonder as I was reading this (so well put together) review what is Freddy's role on the farm, since if animals are smart obviously they aren't just having him around so they can butcher him some day, so having a pig on a farm with no practical role - like Cow gives milk etc. feels sort of pointless... and then I got to the end of the review and... NEVER MIND! :o

12:12 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

That's actually alluded to in a previous book, I forget exactly which, but it's something like, "all the animals did their jobs, and the pigs' job was easy because it was basically just to be pigs." Which...yes, but you should take that to its logical conclusion, maybe. Things might get a bit disturbing.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

I actualy had this dillema in my own work. In "Dollicious" we made a rule not to show our character eat meat and unoficialy the world is vegetarian. However in book 2 we introudce a farm (where vaggies live) and we gave them two pigs, becose pigs our cute and Madga, the artist draws extra adorable pigs - I did wonder what would be the practical use of pigs on a farm in a vegetarian world, heck they give them a bath at one point... but then I came to simple conclusion that PIGS ARE CUTE and that's enough motivation for our girls to want to have them around as pets. They serve as the farms mascots. THAKE THAT CHICKENS AND COWS!

6:52 PM  

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