Apr 12 2012 10:00am

The Advent of a Pig: Freddy Goes to Florida

The original cover image for Freddy Goes to Florida, with the original title, To and AgainDuring and shortly after the great Oz reread, a call came up from the comments asking me to do a Freddy the Pig reread.

I must admit: my response was Freddy the what?

As I have hinted here and there and on this blog, I spent a significant amount of my childhood in Italy, where we had access to British books and those occasional American books Penguin condescended to reprint. Oz, yes. Enid Blyton, absolutely. Paddington Bear, absolutely absolutely. The Wombles of Wimbledon? Complete with the song.

Freddy the Pig?

Per nulla.

Nor did I pick them up when I returned to the States and continued my hunt through American libraries for robot books. (I read everything, but especially robots.) By that time, the Freddy the Pig books, despite devoted fans, had gone out of print, not to return until just a few years ago, when Overlook Press began to reprint them. So until this read, I’d never encountered them, and I can immediately say this was to my loss. If, like me, you’ve missed them —

Well. Let me take this chance to introduce them to you.

Walter R. Brooks, the creator of Freddy the Pig, was not, at first glance, the sort of person expected to create a cultural icon, much less two. (The second cultural icon was Mr. Ed. I am just going to skip ahead and assure those of you turning pale at the mere mention of Mr. Ed that Freddy the Pig is a much better creation.) Born in the 19th century, he was a failed medical student who turned to a career in advertising, public relations and – eventually – essay writing, reviewing and other editorial work for various New York literary magazines, including The New Yorker, where he penned the popular (and still ongoing) The Talk of the Town column.

But he was still working at the Red Cross as a public relations writer when he penned the first of the Freddy books, To and Again, now in print as Freddy Goes to Florida. It’s not at all clear, but I suspect that writing the book proved the inspiration to leave the Red Cross and focus on full time writing—although it was not until the 1940s that he would turn to writing his books full time.

Freddy Goes to Florida does not, to my surprise, open with Freddy, but rather with the disgruntled thoughts of one Charles the Rooster, who feels put upon because the farmer who owns his farm is too cheap to buy an alarm clock, and is therefore completely dependent upon Charles to wake him up every morning. Charles, who dreams of sleeping in, resents this. I currently live all too close to a rooster, and may I just say, this would be a better world if more roosters followed Charles’ point of view.

In any case, this is the start for all the animals to begin to air their grievances, and they have many, most aimed at the farmer, a Mr. Bean. You might be assuming that this is a call for the animals to take over the farm, but these animals are not particularly interested in forming a communist collective and making a clever metaphoric point about Stalinism. Instead they make the far more sensible decision to spend the winter in Florida. (Besides, although the pigs in this book are as clever as Orwell’s, they’re also considerably more lazy.) After some thought, they realize that it would be unfair to the farmer if they all left, so they draw lots. That done, one of the cows, the cat, the mice two spiders, a dog, Freddy the Pig, and two very lucky ducks are ready to trot off to Florida. (At least, the ducks assume they are lucky, since Freddy hasn’t started to sing yet.)

It’s a longer journey than they initially expect. Partly because they are nowhere near Florida when they start off: the location of the farm is not explicit here, but later books establish that the farm is in upstate New York, someplace near Syracuse. Thus the need to flee to Florida. Mostly because, as you might expect would happen to a group of animals on the road, they keep running into adventures: finding themselves needing to listen to dull political speeches in Washington, DC (Brooks’ dialogue here is crackling); taking rides in baby doll carriages; encountering a group of lonely but hungry alligators, and finding a sack of gold. Ok, so the last isn’t exactly typical.

For a short book so crammed with adventure, it has a surprisingly leisurely feel — partly, I suspect, because the animals know they are on vacation, and partly because only a few of the adventures hold any real danger. And partly, perhaps, because in this book, none of the animals have particularly distinctive characters: Jinx the Cat is clever, with some leadership abilities; Mrs.Wiggins the cow is a kindly sort with a sense of humor; Freddy the Pig sings songs, creating rhymes for “Florida” that his friends object to because they make no sense. (Poets everywhere can sympathize.)

But that’s about it. This doesn’t keep the blander animals from having adventures — the spiders Mr. and Mrs. Webb have some terrifying moments when they are separated from the group — but it does mean that strong characterization is not a major part of this book, and it’s thus difficult to identify with any of the animals too strongly. Except, of course, when Freddy can only find one rhyme for “Florida”: “horrider.” (I have to admit; this bit was one of the highlights of the book for me.)

Another highlight: the encounter with the alligators. Brooks had clearly visited Big Cypress at least once, and his description remains fairly accurate except for the part where the alligators can talk. (An especially nice detail: the way the farm animals all initially mistake the alligators for pieces of wood, a common mistake when sighting alligators in water.) The dialogue is crisp; the buildup splendid, and the final trick well done.

Reading a description of 1920s Florida from the animal point of view provides its own fascination, since pretty much everything — beach, orange trees, the Everglades, Big Cypress and Miami is still around; if not for the absence of space shuttles, condos and Disney, I might even assume that not much in Florida had changed since the 1920s. (One quibble, though: unless the journey south took considerably longer than described, and the animals did not return to the farm until, say, late June, I don’t know what they are smelling when they initially arrive in Florida, but it isn’t orange blossoms. Wrong time of year.) Speaking of Disney, I have no idea how this book escaped the Disney treatment: it seems a natural fit. The animals even sing.

If the book is not always, shall we say, realistic, and if at times it comes off as the desperation of a frustrated upstate New Yorker who has endured one too many upstate New York winters, it’s still a nice, short, leisurely and above all warm read.

Just a couple of quick notes: first, I will not be reading all of the Freddy the Pig books — just most of them. (The Orange County Library is beginning to quake when I approach, so let’s not push them too hard, shall we?) Second, I have not finished reading the Freddy the Pig series, so, you know, don’t spoil things for me too much in the comments. A little is fine. And third, if this description doesn’t completely entrance you — well, I have peeked ahead a bit, and these books get considerably better.

Mari Ness attended college in upstate New York, just one of many reasons she now lives in central Florida, near orange groves and orange blossoms. You can hate her now.

S Cooper
1. SPC
Being a Florida child, this was the only one of the series I ever read - in fact I didn't know it was a series! It's a weird experience as a child learning that your home is a just a vacation destination for a lot of people. I remember this was the book where I learned what a phaeton was.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@SPC - I haven't gotten too far in the series, but so far most of the later books, with one exception, were better than this one.

As a Georgette Heyer reader, I've encountered phaetons before. I hadn't encountered animals getting honored by the White House for choosing to go on vacation.
seth e.
3. seth e.
Woohoo! Thanks for taking this on. I think it'll be fun.

I won't spoil anything, but when this and the next book were written, it wasn't really a series, and it certainly wasn't the Freddy series. Freddy doesn't become the main character until the third book, Freddy the Detective, which is really when the series grows into itself. For anyone else following along, I'd recommend starting there, and then working back to the previous two later.

I really love these books, and for years I never met anyone who'd heard of them at all. I was beginning to think I'd imagined them. When the series started to be re-issued, I was glad to find that they'd aged quite well, all things considered.

They're not quite fantasy, certainly not as modern readers would expect; to me, they come out of a very American tradition of tall tales, a kind of mild, amiable deadpan surrealism of which talking animals are only the most obvious sign. The absurdity got deeper and deeper as the series went along, and Brooks cheerfully hoovered up any other idea that presented itself to him. I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the title of a later book, Freddy and the Baseball Team From Mars, is about exactly what it says on the tin. But Brooks' light touch hardly ever breaks.
Fade Manley
4. fadeaccompli
This sounds distantly, weirdly familiar. Which is odd, because I would think that I would really remember it if I ever read a book about a group of farm animals jaunting off to Florida and encountering some alligators.

Alligators are, after all, inherently memorable.
Constance Sublette
5. Zorra
Having a father who is a pilot and adores all things aero, of course the Freddy novel I first encountered was Freddy the Pilot.

On my own, of course the first Freddys after that were Freddy and the Men From Mars and Freddy and the Spaceship. Though I continued to love Freddy and some of the other books in the series thereafter, oddly enough these were the books that my incipient sense of 'proper' writing about outer space, as my brother and I referred to sfnal things then, that these books' treatment was all wrong. And thereafter would not read any novels that didn't do it "properly," such as Mrs. Pickerell Goes to Mars. My nine-year-old self sneered, positively sneered, at such efforts!

Love, C.
Constance Sublette
6. Zorra
I still feel that Freddy the Detective was the best of all the Freddy books I read. But I rapidly outgrew them, and the library didn't have all of them. This one though I re-read several times during my 9 - 10 year old period.

Love, C.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@seth e -- I don't know how well the original books were marketed. I can say that although the reprints (the only books available through the Orange County Library System) look great and the illustrations are crisp, the words on the back of the books are not exactly designed to entice children to pick up the books. I would have said "boring" and moved on, even though I was all about talking animals in Oz and Narnia. So that probably helps explain why the reprints didn't take off that much.

@fadeaccompli -- There is another book where alligators from Florida end up in the New York City sewer system, and then escape back to Florida -- it's mostly a picture book, awesome for its illustrations of alligators in human clothing trying to board a commercial jet liner. Maybe that was what you were thinking of?

@Zorra - I have to admit that although I haven't read it yet, the mere title of Freddy and the Men from Mars was enough to convince me that this reread might be worth doing. If people had also mentioned that a talking cat was a major character I would have jumped in sooner :)
John Adams
8. JohnArkansawyer
(I read everything, but especially robots.)
Be sure not to miss The Clockwork Twin, which I don't think ever got re-issued with Freddy in the title.

EDITED to fix the mis-remembered title.
seth e.
9. Dr. Thaqnatos
Man, this brings back memories. I remember reading Freddie and the Spaceship when I was a kid in the 60's.

When you get through this enjoyable nostalgic romp, I would add the series about the Mushroom Planet.

My long-term memory is fuzzy but there were several books about a planet that could only be seen through telescopes with special filters; and the nice man next door was really an advanced form of mushroom.
seth e.
10. Dr. Thanatos
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Dr. Thanatos -- Suggestion noted, but as several outraged people will note I still owe them Edward Eager and Roald Dahl rereads, plus Wombles rereads (this one is actually mostly just me, but I think ICFA attendees would appreciate it if I could finish it so that I stop singing the Wombles song to them!) But we can definitely keep this one in mind.

@JohnArkensawyer -- Erk. I think Freddy and the Clockwork Twin was one of the books the library didn't have.
John Adams
12. JohnArkansawyer
@MariCats -- The copy I read was just called The Clockwork Twin. It's a bit of a long shot, and you might well have tried it already, but if you haven't, perhaps they have it under that title. If not, well, it shows up again in later books, so all is not lost.

And thanks for doing this! I loved the Freddy books when I was younger. I read every one I could find.

Now that I have a young daughter, I spend quite a bit time in the kids' book sections, and picked up Freddy and the Ignormous recently. While it wasn't quite the magical experience I remembered--what books from my youth are?--it was still charming and lovely.
Nicholas Whyte
13. Nicholas Whyte
My family lived in the USA (in Stoneham MA) for a year in 1973-4, the year I turned seven; and I pretty much inhaled all the Freddy books I could find in the local library. I don't believe I have so much as seen one since. But I will follow this series of posts with delight and nostalgia.
Mari Ness
14. MariCats
@JohnArkansawyer -- The library appears to be failing me. However, I am supposed to be stopping by an excellent used bookstore over the weekend so I will see if that owner can help me with this particular book.

@Nicholas Whyte -- By an odd coincidence, I was born in Stonehman, MA.
Lenny Bailes
15. lennyb
The Bean Farm Irregulars live again.

"Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,
beasts of every land and clime,
hearken to my joyful tidings --"

Wait, that's the wrong talking animal story.

Red and gold wagons are coming down the street,
with a Boomschmidt, Boomschmidt, boom, boom, boom!

Long live the First Animal Republic. Wiggins for President!
seth e.
16. ericshanower
Wait till you get to Freddy the Politician, Mari.

I hope you read Freddy Goes to Florida with the Kurt Wiese illustrations, not To and Again with the Adolfo Best-Maugard illustrations. It makes a difference.

The final three Freddy books are often considered the worst of the series by Freddy fans, although they have their adherents. Well, the second one isn't the greatest either--it really shows Brooks floundering around, not understanding what made the first book work. So I look forward to your opinions on that one.

Make sure to read Politician, Perilous Adventure, Weedly, Bean Home News, Cowboy. If you need any titles the library can't get, I'm sure the Friends of Freddy can scare up copies for you to read. Just let me know.

seth e.
17. David Lenander
I actually think that Florida is one of the best of the books, even though it's not really a "Freddy" book in the way that we usually think of the series. It's kind of a rewrite or novelization of the folk tale, "The Bremen Town Musicians" or however that's spelled, which has a number of variants, too. I am also absolutely convinced that this book, and probably Freddy the Politician (originally, Wiggins for President) influenced Orwell and Animal Farm, though to find any definitive evidence for that is perhaps not going to ever happen. I read most of these books in grade school in the 60s, when there were multiple copies of the series in the public libraries in St. Paul, MN. Except a few volumes were missing from the library collection, including The Clockwork Twin (which I think I've heard DID make a brief appearance as "Freddy & the Clockwork Twin," but the Overlook Press reissue stuck with the original title. That's when I finally got to read that one, and at least one other. Despite Freddy's starring role in Detective, he still wasn't entirely the main character for at least a few books, but starting a bit later in the series he certainly became so. It's an entirely different kind of wonderfulness that comes to a series book that can really only be appreciated in context of the whole series. In this case, Brooks starts throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, so that by the time of my favorite, Freddy the Pilot, the book can't be complete without cameos from Boomschmidt's circus, all of the local Bean Farm animals, some of the humans from Centerville, etc. etc. Even today I can hardly read from one of those books without laughing out loud. But, I do agree that even for me, the Martians were just perhaps a step too far. I quite like the last book, Freddy & the Dragon, though. Other series that achieve this kind of odd strength, even while indulging plot and other sorts of built-in weakness (in terms of the books standing on their own) include the Oz books and maybe the Terry Pratchett Diskworld books. Having said all that, I have little doubt in my mind that the best of the whole series in most respects is the retitled Freddy the Politician, which still retained some of the strength of Brooks's idea of having the different animals take a lead role in the different books, in which schema Freddy was intended to have the lead in Detective, but only a supporting role in the others. Hence the different titles for those early books, in this case Wiggins for President, and indeed Mrs. Wiggins has one of her best roles in this book, and Jinx is more prominent than he later became--he turns into Freddy's second banana, something my child resented enormously. In fact, when she was about 8 she told me she was going to write "Freddy & the Ham Dinner" so that Jinx could get out from under Freddy's shadow. She mostly refused to read the later books.
seth e.
18. Handy Randy
Mari- it makes me so happy you are doing the Freddy books, and that most likely at least dozens of people will be introduced to the books by your blog (I have no idea how many hits you get) Goodness, that mention of "Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars" gave me quite a start. I used to have a paperback Scholastic version of that, and I used to keep it by my bed and re read it constantly (it's a very short book) Also, the Mushroom Planet books. I havn't thought about those since I was a pre teen (which let me assure you was QUITE a long time ago), They were absolutely MIND BLOWING. Very surrealistic, and very exciting. I think they might have been WRITTEN under the influence of mushrooms!! I'm just going to mention one last series of books. I think the first one in the series was called "The Three Seated Space Ship" (I'll have to research that for you) They are extremely funny, as well as being good, exciting juvenile science fiction. Oh, and here's a thought- have you considered doing the juvenile sci fi books by Roberet Heinlein??? Well, I'm sure you have an idea of where you want your re reads to go. We readers are just the lucky ones along for the ride. I hope you are well and happy, and that your cat is in fine mettle.
seth e.
19. Handy Randy
Mari- the title of that book is indeed "The Three Seated Spaceship" and it is by Louis Slobodkin. I saw paperback copies of it on Amazon for 1.99 if your local library doesn't have it. If I remember correctly, there are about four books in the series. They are definitely forgotten minor classics, and once you are through reading Freddy you could do worse than looking them up!!
alan smith
20. rattnroll
How awesome to find this article! Thanks Eric Shanower! Thanks for this excellent review. I discovered Freddy as a 9 year old (1973) at my school library. I read Freddy the Detective and Freddy Goes Camping and fell in love with Freddy, Jinx and the animals on the Bean farm. I soon read them all after visiting several libraries. Now I own them all thanks to eBay. I always wondered if Arnold Ziffel was influenced by Freddy.
Mari Ness
21. MariCats
@lennyb -- Wiggins for President indeed! I love her sturdy practicality. I assume from the title that's in Freddy the Politician -- that one is on order from Interlibrary loan and hasn't made it here yet.

@EricShanower -- So far, all of the books that have arrived have had the Kurt Wiese illustrations. My favorite so far is the illustration of Freddy with the little deerstalker cap -- this is great. The books are arriving from various Florida libraries via interlibrary loan, though, so I'm kinda stuck with what was purchased.

@David Lenander -- I was definitely struck by the similiaries in the early parts of Freddy Goes to Florida and Animal Farm. I have no idea if Orwell ever read, or knew about, the Freddy books, but the opening bits are remarkably similar: the animals gathering around complaining about their workload and how unfair life is, the very similar characterization of some of the farm animals, the idea that some sort of revolt is needed. And of course the satire. The books end up in very different directions, and I think that Orwell was considerably more concerned about communism and totalitarianism than Brooks was, but some influence seems possible, since Animal Farm was published in 1945, well after several of the Freddy books had been published.

I am, alas, going to have to disagree with your daughter, even though I haven't reached that point in the series yet. I love Jinx the cat. Go Jinx! But she should definitely write that book.

@Handy Randy -- I don't think I'll be doing a Heinlein reread at any time in the near future -- already discussed many of the Heinlein books at length last year, and honestly that's more Jo Walton's thing than mine. But I have the Mushroom Planet books down for a possible later look.

@rattnroll -- I don't know if Green Acres was influenced by the Freddy the Pig books in particular, but the producers certainly knew about Walter Brooks, since they also produced Mr. Ed, based on a Walter Brooks story. How much that influenced the Green Acres writers I couldn't tell you; I haven't seen that show in years.
seth e.
22. ericshanower
The Mr. Ed tv show was based not just on one short story, but on a series of Ed stories that Brooks published in the Saturday Evening Post. (And maybe in other magazines, too, I can't remember for sure at the moment.) In the stories, the horse was just named Ed, no "Mr."

Brooks had quite a short story output in many of the top magazines--
Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Liberty, etc. He wrote a few juvenile short stories, but most of his short stories were definitely for adults. Often they were pretty racy for the times--though pretty quaint today, but still funny. Conversely, most of his books were juveniles--his one adult fiction book was Ernestine Takes Over. It's very much in the vein of his adult short fiction and reminiscent of Thorne Smith's books. But good luck finding a copy.

If anyone's interested in Brooks's life, I believe the recent biography Talking Animals and Others by Michael Cart is still in print.

Pamela Adams
23. PamAdams
Yay, Freddy! I originally read him as a kid in the 60's and 70's.

It always amuses me to read books set in Florida from the early 20th century. You can't think of today's Florida without Orlando (thanks, Mickey!), but of course, back then, it was a tiny town and absolutely unimportant.
seth e.
There are lots of good parts in the Freddy books, and I think Freddy Goes to Florida was absolutely the book that got me into Freddy.

I've translated some of the confusing parts, such as the word "PLIG" in the poem called the Song of Frederick. The first thing that came to me was: an animal who copies somebody in looking stylish. But that doesn't describe Freddy much. What does is an animal who has done lots of occupations.

As for Freddy goes to Florida, that's a great description. Keep it up with descriptions in Freddy Goes to the North Pole, or More to and Again.
P.S. Somebody=Leo

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