Up until now, even the most serious of the Freddy books (arguably Freddy the Politician/Mrs. Wiggins for President or Freddy and the Ignormus) had also been, well, deeply silly, keeping a jovial tone even while puncturing the flaws in American society or warning of the rise of fascism. But in 1956, Walter Brooks abruptly abandoned this silliness for Freddy and Simon the Dictator, a surprisingly bitter denunciation of United States politics, with a tone that could best be described as “bleak” if not “outright paranoid,” without a single touch of silliness.
If Wikipedia can be believed, this shift in tone can be blamed on Walter Brooks’ increasingly bad health. Despite the inclusion of a rare, off topic and very sad poem about losing teeth, and why that sucks, I am not at all sure we can believe in Wikipedia in this instance. Several elements of Freddy and Simon the Dictator, including a fear of politicians and authoritarianism, were present in earlier books; it seems more as if the author finally allowed all of his frustration with and fear of American politics to come to the forefront.
And his desire to torture rats.
As the book opens, the rabbits are revolting. This may not seem serious, but as Freddy and Jinx soon realize, this is just the tip of a much larger problem: something in the woods is encouraging all of the animals of upstate New York, from rabbits to wild wolves, to revolt against humans and take over their homes and farms—violently. Since their ranks include powerful animals, they are easily able to seize several farms and even create a concentration camp to imprison farmers who refuse to bow to the new animal regimes. Their strength remains in the countryside, but with road blocks and poisoned wells, those taking shelter in the towns and cities are not expected to hold out for long—unless Freddy can manage to take down the leaders of the revolutionary movement.
Before everyone gets excited about the rise of the proletariat animals, this turns out to be a completely corrupt revolution, based on lies, intended solely to bring Simon the Rat (I hope this disclosure doesn’t come as a surprise at this point) and Mr. Garble (ditto) into power. As one of the owls notes:
“Those who think they’re going to have the vote under an animal dictator are very much mistaken,” said Uncle Solomon. “The country will be run the way Russia is; every animal will be told what to do, and if he knows what is good for him he’ll do it. Animals that try to remain loyal to their human masters will be moved out and replaced by rough characters from the Adirondacks.”
This prediction turns out to be all too correct. And because this is a brutal dictatorship, any attempts at resistance are also brutal. (And in the case of Jinx the Cat, forced to pretend to disloyalty, rather sad.)
Simon’s lies are, however, only part of why the revolution is successful. It also works because of a problem that has been growing for several books now: what exactly is the status of these talking animals? They can, after all, fly planes, solve crimes, do magic tricks, partake in tea parties, print newspapers, run banks, find themselves on trial, and yet, they cannot vote and are owned by humans. Freddy is well aware that at any time he could be sold and shipped out to Montana to be butchered. Meanwhile, everyone keeps eating chicken and ham while talking to talking chickens and pigs. The talking animals may not exactly be slaves. But they are not quite free, either—and the end of the book leaves this uneasy status unchanged.
Meanwhile, just in case you were wondering about just how much American politics has changed since the 1950s, Freddy’s wealthy friend Mr. Camphor has been asked to join the Republican party and run for governor of New York State. Mr. Camphor initially agrees, on the basis that this will make him famous, and then reconsiders, on the basis that he knows nothing about governing, and begs Freddy to help him get out of it.
The resulting scene is one of the nastiest indictments of American politics, and in particular the Republican Party, that I can remember from any childhood book, ever, a deadly exposure of corruption and what politicians will do to get votes. The Republicans make it clear that they can and will do anything to win an election. This includes running on a platform that promises the elimination of all taxes, since this will certainly get them elected—and an agreement that this promise is a complete lie. After the election, they can conveniently “discover” that they need tax money after all and that taxes can then be raised once they are in power. They plan to extend the votes to animals on the basis that animals, as rural creatures, are more likely to vote Republican—overcoming that huge Democratic block of votes in New York City. They offer some none too subtle bribes and flattering messages to Freddy, on the basis that he, as a political boss, can help deliver the animal vote. They have a brutal discussion about how a candidate should and must act in order to get votes. They know virtually nothing about United States history (a nasty bit shows them unable to name more than a few U.S. presidents or current events). And these are just the highlights from the men (this entire book is almost only men) running the Republican Party of New York.
Mr. Camphor, not surprisingly, flees to the Otesaraga Indians, pretending they have kidnapped him. The Republicans refuse to help rescue Mr. Camphor on the basis that doing so might irritate the Otesaraga, who would then vote Democratic. No, really. Although based on this book alone, the real question is why the Otesaraga aren’t leading the revolution instead of leaving that to the rats, but that’s another debate entirely that Brooks probably wanted to avoid.
In the end, Freddy only wins on both fronts through a combination of democratic promises and military might—using packs of loyal dogs to rout the wolves.
But lest anyone think this book is too hostile to the Republican Party, Brooks gives us one final surprise: thanks entirely to those political shenanigans, the Republicans win.
The result ends up giving Freddy (a Republican) more political power than ever, allowing him to take a position himself as the mayor of Centerboro and introducing a couple of bits of legislation that smack of wish-fulfillment on the part of Walter Brooks (in particular a city parking plan that I cannot see any United States urban area actually adopting outside of very small areas). But to say the least, it is an uneasy ending, since this is a triumph that comes not from unmasking deception and crime, but using questionable political procedures—even if these procedures end up bringing the vote to previously disenfranchised voters and solving parking problems. It is, like politics in general, decidedly messy.
How much of this was meant as a reflection of the efforts to reduce voter disenfranchisement in various U.S. areas of the time I’m not sure. The depiction of upstate New York areas generally voting Republican and New York City generally voting Democratic and everyone meeting more or less unhappily in Albany to work things out is a more or less valid picture of New York State politics in the 1950s, however, adding another uneasy realistic touch, and the image of politicians meeting behind closed doors to discuss how to reduce New York City’s political influence rings all too true.
Also uneasy: the jokes. Unusually for a Freddy book, they are few and far between, with almost none of the terribly silly action scenes from previous books. (The one exception does lead to Freddy writing a nice parody of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” one of the book’s highlights.) Some—particularly the one where a burning at the stake is said to be followed by a nice supper from the ladies of the First Presbyterian Church of Centerboro—have an unusual touch of cruelty behind them; only one, towards the end of book, seems to work. The situation, which includes terrorized animals and humans, not to mention a completely corrupt political regime, is too serious for jokes.
Brooks does, however, deal slyly with one major stereotype: that of Native Americans. When initially introduced, his Otesaraga Indians seem to fulfill every offensive stereotype imaginable, and since this was right after one of the nastiest Republican Party bits, my eyebrows almost hit the center of my forehead. They do war dances, bad English, “heap bad medicine” and so on. But as it turns out, this is all deception—the Otesaraga engage in these stereotypes to trick money from summer tourists, who expect this sort of thing, and are trying to be as much like completely fake Sioux as possible. Believing in what people, Republicans or Otesaraga Indians, chose to show or tell you, this book suggests, can be very dangerous to your politics and your wallet.
Incidentally, this book suggests that Mrs. Wiggins has at long last given up the presidency of the Free Animal Republic and instead taken over its army, although no details are given. And Brooks finally explains how he, as author, has received all of his information about the Bean Farm. He, that is, Walter Brooks—the historian of the Bean Farm—occasionally pops over to the Farm and spends a week there. In another sly note, Brooks shows one of the characters reading one of the Freddy books.
I honestly have no idea whether or not I can recommend this book. It more than occasionally makes for unpleasant reading (particularly a bit where a rat is subjected to torture, something unheard of in previous Freddy books) and lacks much of what made the rest of the series fun. But it’s also, I think, fairly unique in children’s literature, and as a warning of how easily political systems can be turned to terrible purposes, it is well worth a read.
After reading this book, Mari Ness decided to stave off attempts at rebellion by offering moderate enfranchisement to both of her cats, allowing them to vote on where they can sit on her. So far, the revolution is napping.