Monday, October 10, 2022

Walter R. Brooks, Freddy and the Space Ship (1953)

Well, we now reach the point that I was, if not dreading, at least vaguely unsettled about: the science fiction Freddy books.  When I was a little kid and my dad was reading the series to me, he always spoke very dismissively about them: a dumb gimmick introduced towards the series' end to no good end.  Still, such was our fandom that eventually he did read them to us, and I think I liked them fine.  Well, most of them, anyway.  I'm pretty sure that this one is the only one I had never read before now.  Not that I remember not having read it, but I do remember at some point in the past having assessed the series and realizing that this was the only one missing.  So take that for what you will!  I've read it now, anyway.  Clearly.

Well, in this one Uncle Ben has invented, wait for it, a space ship, so he's going off to Mars, and he takes Freddy, Jinx, Charles, and Georgie along with, as well as Mrs. Peppercorn, a cantankerous old lady who had previously been a minor recurring character.  But instead, they get turned around and land back on Earth, and there's a rather labored section where they think they're on Mars and they're trying to figure out what's what.  But no, they're on Earth, and what they need to do is to deal with the novel's antagonists, the Bismuth family, cousins of the Beans who are living with them because of a fire and really egregiously imposing in them in a way that would fully justify kicking them the hell out, but the Beans won't because of some misguided sense of hospitality that really just makes them seem like easily-exploited pushovers.  Also, Mr. Bismuth has stolen some jewelry that belonged to the ducks (because ducks always find valuables like that at the bottom of ponds, you see).

So...I was kind of on the fence about this book.  The big issue is simply that Brooks is really, really changing the nature of the world.  Obviously it's all fantasy, but something like Freddy and the Bean Home News is fun because, within the context of that world, you can actually imagine it happening.  The animals start a newspaper; how fun is that?  Whereas here Brooks just casually sticks this space stuff in there and I don't even KNOW.  Granted, you could maybe kind of see this coming: as I noted, Freddy the Pilot is a pretty substantial move towards the fantastical, and in retrospect, you can't help but notice that something like Freddy Plays Football is substantially goofier than Freddy the Detective.  Still, this here does represent a substantial shift, not necessarily for the better.

Also, the book rubs me the wrong way right from the start, with a forest fire; “more than half of the Big Woods had been burned,” Brooks casually notes, which DUDE!  That's awful!  You can't say that so casually!  This happens so that the Bismuths can move in with the Beans and so that Freddy & co can be confused into thinking they're actually on Mars when the ship lands, but dude!  In fairness, we DO see most of the characters who live in the Big Woods, so no need to worry about them, I guess, but dang.  I would frankly leave this development out of my Freddy fanfic.  Then again, I'd leave all the science fiction stuff out entirely, so what does that prove?

Also, get ready for Freddy the Colonialist!

A large heavy box was drifting around right in the middle of the room.  It contained bright bead necklaces, lengths of red cloth, and trinkets of various kinds, which Freddy planned to trade with the natives of Mars for whatever they had that was of value.


“Anyway,” said Freddy, maybe they're more civilized than we are instead of less.  Maybe we're the Indians and they're the white men.”

STOP IT.  I mean, okay, there are really only a handful of examples of this, but they ain't good!  Still, let's count our blessings: if Brooks was going to extend the series with some sort of weird novelty, we ought to be thankful that he just chose space as opposed to terrestrial globetrotting: imagine how horrific Freddy Goes to Africa would've been.  It would've blemished the entire series, I'd say.

Also, check this bit out, at Mrs. Wiggins' trial (she's been framed for theft by Bismuth), cataloging the jury:

There were six men: Mr. Beller and Mr. Rohr from the music store, Dr. Wintersip, Mr. Metacarpus, the manager of the Busy Bee, Mr. Hinkelbaugh, the butcher, and a young farmer whose name nobody could either spell or pronounce.  And there were six animals: Ronald, Charles' son-in-law, Theodore, the frog, Mac, the wildcat from up in the woods, Peter, the bear, Jerry, Mr. Witherspoon's horse, and Jinx, who was foreman of the jury.

Did your thought patterns follow mine?  I immediately thought, okay, six men, after this, six women, right?  But then you realize, nope, given this series, it's gotta be animals!  So, some unconscious (presumably) chauvinism there.  Still, on the bright side, Ronald!  I don't think we've seen him since Wiggins for President.  He was the one who piloted Bertram.  Should I call Bertram a mech suit?  Why not? 

Well, anyway, but I do have to admit, I started getting into it, more in the back half.  The science fiction kind of recedes into the background, as there's more focus on getting rid of the Bismuths in a way that's more consonant with the general feel of the series.  So that's all right.  Unfortunately, there's one part at the end that left a REALLY sour taste in my mouth, however.  

Right: so when the fire happened, water was pumped out of the duck pond to extinguish it, leaving insufficient pond sedge (or whatever; Brooks appears to be under the impression that ducks actually eat mud, about which I have no comment) on the bottom.  So Mr. Bismuth gets Uncle Wesley to go along with his plot to reroute the flow of water, with the pretense that it's to help the ducks whereas it's really just so he can dry up the pond and steal Alice and Emma's stuff.  Wesley tells Freddy that he saw Mr. Bismuth steal the jewels, but during the trial, apparently having been threatened by Bismuth, he says that he had agreed that Mr. Bismuth would take the jewels temporarily, just for safekeeping.  And he DOES NOT recant this lie.

I'd like to wring that duck's neck,” Freddy said angrily, and Whibley said: “I'll save you the trouble, if I can catch him when Alice and Emma aren't around.  Look at 'em, down there in the front row; look at 'em starting at him all starry-eyed, as if he'd just defended 'em from seventeen dragons, instead of having sold 'em out.

I hate this.  I really, really hate that Uncle Wesley gets no chance for redemption.  And here is the LAST we see or hear of the ducks:

Uncle Wesley, followed by his nieces, was starting across the courthouse square to take the road back to the farm.  But as he went on, the crowd in the square drew away from them, so that the ducks waddled along in an empty space which opened in from of them and filled in behind them.  At first the people just looked, but then someone hissed, and in a minute there were hisses and boos and catcalls, and fists were shaken and a few old vegetables thrown.  But through it all Alice and Emma walked on, holding their heads high, while Uncle Wesley slunk along behind, half fainting with shame and fright.

So Alice and Emma are just deluded and we're just supposed to hate their uncle, I guess.  I cannot stand any aspect of this.  Wesley is the only character in these books who, though not an out-and-out villain, Brooks seems to dislike.  So that sucks, and it sucks for his nieces to just be, apparently, permanently deceived.  You cannot end like this, Brooks.  Do you really not realize how this reads?  Dammit.

WELL, notwithstanding that, I should at least catalogue a few notable things.  Well, only two, but they ARE notable!  First, Mrs. Peppercorn “always called Uncle Ben “young man,” although he was forty-seven years and two months old.”  Huh.  So the Beans are in their fifties, and my impression had always been that he was Mr. Bean's uncle, and therefore probably in his seventies at least.  But looking back I can't immediately find any textual evidence of that, so I may have just been assuming.  But in this case, the unavoidable question is, whose uncle is he?  What's going on here?!?

And I know I haven't been dealing with the “eating sentient animals” thing, because it is what it is, but this is pretty funny.  Mr. Webb:

It used to be, you could make a sort of gentleman's agreement with them, they would stay out of the house in the summertime, and mother and I, when we caught any of the local flies, we'd let 'em go.  Of course, unless we were terribly hungry.  But generally, we just dined off those we weren't personally acquainted with.

I dunno.  I'm just not sure if “sure, we trapped, butchered, and ate them, but they were strangers, for the most part” is really going to be a very effective defense in a court case.  Certainly, I've never seen Phoenix Wright try that one.


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