As it turns out, the problem with spending a delightful winter in Florida and finding a sack of gold in the bargain is that you get terribly bored afterwards. At least, you do if you are a clever pig, a cat, a good tempered cow, a rather less good tempered crow, a talkative rooster, or any of a number of other farm animals at Bean’s Farm in upstate New York, desperate for something to do.
Like any other nice industrious American animals, they initially choose commerce, offering various tours of the local areas and Florida for equally bored animals, a process that goes well enough if you ignore some of the belly aches gained by the mice thanks to overconsumption of cheese. But this, alas, provides only limited scope for their talents. Eventually, Freddy is seized by a new idea: he should take an expedition to the North Pole. After all, as diehard upstate New Yorkers, they are accustomed to the cold.
And so, off Freddy goes, accompanied by Jinx the cat, a horse, a cow, a dog, and Ferdinand, a crow with a rather questionable disposition. Months pass. And more months pass. Until the now extremely worried animals back on the farm hear the terrible news: Freddy and his friends have been — gasp! — taken on board a whaling ship. A whaling ship that just happens to be staffed with whalers who like nice, juicy pork. Gulp. SOMEONE has to rescue Freddy!
That someone is not going to be Ferdinand the Crow, although he does start off leading the rescue expedition, if quite badly. He fails to make proper preparations for travelling in the snow and fails to bring enough food, forcing the animals to have to stop and give lectures to earn enough food and warm clothing to continue. And I am very sorry to tell you that the American group blatantly cheats Canadian Customs, in a scene that strongly suggests that Brooks had no patience with bureaucrats or Customs agents of any nationality. (Shocking, I know.) That’s not the only problem: the rescue party also encounters bears (gulp), wolves (gulp gulp) and two little children under the hellish care of Kate and Pete. Kate abuses the children; Pete attempts to correct Kate’s grammar, because if you are going to abuse children, you really ought to do so grammatically.
Despite all this, the rescuers (spoilers) do manage to make it to the North Pole, and meet up with Freddy, who earlier arrived with the whalers. Alas, not all is well there. Santa, you see, has been overrun by American Efficiency Experts who were also on the ship. (How exactly U.S. manufacturing experts found themselves on an Arctic whaling ship is something Brooks merrily hand waves.) The problem is, as these experts explain, Santa is running a dreadfully old fashioned operation. He doesn’t even — everyone, prepare yourself for the shock — have an advertising budget. And he lets all of his workers — people displaced by the American manufacturing line — take breaks whenever they want AND play games. In particular, the chimney bit has just got to go.
(I am inclined to agree with the chimney part. It’s very scary when you are waiting for Santa and you don’t have a chimney even if your grandmother assures you that Santa doesn’t really NEED chimneys whatever television says.)
The Wall Street crash helping to trigger the Great Depression and mark its beginning happened on October 1929; Freddy Goes to the North Pole was published in 1930. Given that books of the period typically did not appear in print until at least a year after a manuscript was delivered, it seems probable that Freddy Goes to the North Pole was written before the Great Depression hit. Nonetheless, it shows signs of concerns about labor movements and working conditions in the U.S., and Brooks takes some well aimed shots at American business and manufacturing, both at the North Pole and at the Bean farm.
Brooks also notes how difficult these labor and management forces are to resist — on both sides. The Efficiency Experts have a hard time getting their employees to work a nine to five schedule; the all powerful Santa has an equally difficult time controlling the Efficiency Experts, partly he’s a kindly soul, but partly because they are not entirely wrong; he is running an inefficient operation.
Only one person can save Santa a pig.
Not that Santa is not above a few clever threats. For instance, he quickly hushes adults by promising to bring their children and grandchildren noisy toys. But he refuses to do anything cruel to any adult, including the experts and insists on following the law, making his rescue difficult. On the other hand, Santa gives delightful and thoughtful presents, and, in a very nice touch, assures adults — and any young children reading the book — that it’s perfectly ok for boys to play with dolls. Go Santa!
The book is not perfect. It takes far too long for the actual plot to start going, amusing though the efforts of the animals to set up a travel business are. The disappearance of the first group of travelers, including Freddy the Pig and Jinx the Cat, responsible for starting the plot, for half the book doesn’t help, and although the episode of rescuing the two children is full of adventure and amusement, this leaves Brooks stuck with yet two more characters who have nothing to do — in a book already overfilled with characters. Parents intending to read this book to young children should be warned that the Santa plot may provide some anxious moments since it’s not at all clear if anyone is going to get any more presents EVER. Gulp.
But it does offer some of Brooks’ first experiments with different conversational tones (including a hilarious eagle who insists on speaking very formally indeed and something that is apparently supposed to be Nantucket whaling talk), sharp observations of human society. And a bit of fun when the kind hearted Mrs. Wiggins the Cow, needing to say something to the bad tempered Ferdinand the Crow, avoids all of the real words that could describe his behavior, and instead settles on “sophisticated.” Not that she or the crow actually know what the word means:
Mrs. Wiggins turned to the other animals. “Isn’t he too sophisticated?” she asked, and as none of them wanted to admit that he didn’t know what the word meant, they all nodded and said yes.
Poor Ferdinand managed to pull his wits together somewhat. “I am not sophisticated!” he explained. “I’ve been perfectly open and above-board about everything, and –”
“Oh, that isn’t what I mean at all,” said the cow; and as she didn’t know what she did mean, it was perfectly true.
That’s the sort of gentle satire and wordplay, combined with some harsher hits at American industry, that fills the book, and makes it a definite fun read.
Mari Ness still thinks that if her grandmother was correct, and Santa Claus could just come through a front door, locked or unlocked, that he should make this his standard policy. She lives in central Florida.