During 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?
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.