Up until this point, the Freddy books have been — what is the word I’m looking for? — fluffy. Oh, certainly, author Walter Brooks had not hesitated to satirize various features of American culture: political speeches, courtroom trials, and capitalism, casting gentle zingers at venerable institutions. But for the most part, the books remained lighthearted romps.
In Freddy the Politician (1939; originally published as Wiggins for President) however, Brooks took his satire to new levels, using his animals to create a thinly veiled allegory on the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rise of fascism, and the takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia, as well as aiming some zingers at American politics and Washington DC. It’s almost as if Brooks had developed a certain, how shall I put it, cynicism regarding American politics, and outright fear about the world stage.
Not that the book begins with anything nearly that alarming. Mr. and Mrs. Bean, owners of the Bean Farm, want to go to Europe for the summer — but are worried less about war, and more that even their remarkable talking animals are too irresponsible to run the farm while they are away. (In Mr. Bean’s defense, the animals have taken several extensive vacations and damaged a priceless clockwork boy, however clever they might seem.) To reassure Mr. Bean, the animals, led by Freddy, decide to set up a working system of government and a real bank.
This presents its own problems. The government, of course, requires an election and a name that Freddy can easily rhyme. (“Beania” is swiftly discarded, since the rhymes of “Armenia” and “neurasthenia” aren’t very patriotic.) The bank requires a basic knowledge of banking, which none of the animals have. At this opportune moment, a family of woodpeckers arrives from Washington, DC.
(Incidentally, I am mildly amused that the animals insist on remaining patriotic Americans even as they set up a free and independent Republic right in the middle of New York State, which last I heard was the sort of thing not exactly regarded with kindness by the United States government. On the other hand, it’s an animal republic, and the animals don’t exactly vote in regular human elections. So I suppose it’s all right.)
The woodpeckers come from a distinguished family who have lived on the White House lawn and sometimes even been hatched inside the White House (time for a subtle Calvin Coolidge joke), allowing them to have an inner knowledge of government and banking. John Quincy, Grover, and X (time for a considerably less subtle jab at Franklin Delano Roosevelt, since X can’t get a name until a new president gets elected, as the family is currently out of presidential names) help Freddy establish the bank. But it does not take long for Freddy to realize that however distinguished their background, these woodpeckers may have ulterior motives towards both the bank — and the election. Especially after the woodpeckers manage to name themselves bank officers, and Grover announces that he is running for president.
You might expect — indeed, I expected — Freddy to run against him. But Freddy, in a rare moment of self-honesty, admits that waking up early, a requirement for politicians, is not one of his skills. Instead, he and his friends nominate the best qualified candidate: the always practical and highly respected Mrs. Wiggins the Cow. I admit that the unlikelihood of any group of people or animals choosing the most qualified candidate to run for presidency nearly threw me out of this book, until I remembered that this is a children’s book and it’s probably best to leave children with some hope for our national politics. Ahem. Never ones to miss an opportunity to get ahead, the rats show up, pushing their own candidate, a rather questionable rabbit. And with that, the fight for the Free Animal Republic is on.
As might be expected from a book focused on banking and politics, it is full of dirty tricks. (Literally dirty; one trick involves a large wall of dirt.) The woodpeckers employ perfectly legal stratagems to gain control of the bank and make it seem more legitimate, like this one:
“Sixteenth vice-president!” said Freddy. “But there aren’t any vice-presidents. How can I be sixteenth?”
“Banks always have a lot of vice-presidents,” John Quincy explained. “The more they have, the more important the bank is. We just made you sixteenth so it would sound like a more important bank.”
Their banking shenanigans (which go far beyond this) are nothing compared to the dirty tricks they begin pulling in the election. They promise things they can never deliver, tricking the chickens. They speak loudly of their government experience, despite objections from the animals:
“That’s why I say that all this talk of Grover’s about your needing a president with experience is funny. I don’t say he hasn’t had lots of it, but he hasn’t learned anything by it. And so what good it is it?”
Finding a loophole in the election laws, the woodpeckers bring in outside voters to rig the vote. Realizing that even that stunt might not guarantee a win, they allow Simon the Rat to take advantage of the illiteracy of most of the voters and a certain problem with the English alphabet to pull off a particularly clever trick. (Well, clever if, like me, you occasionally have the sense of humor of a five year old. I had to laugh. Some of you will be appalled.) And the actual election is not conducted without still more trickery.
The “win” allows the woodpeckers reveal their true natures. They round up their political opponents, speak loudly of patriotism, create a series of new laws favorable to them, create an army, and start invading other farms, relying on superior weaponry and swift, surprise attacks. Their first assault — similar to the Nazi takeover of Austria — takes everyone by surprise, and soon, several farms are under their control. They insist, of course, that this is all for the best.
Fortunately, Freddy and the always awesome Mrs. Wiggins disagree.
This transformation from smooth talking Washington, DC politicians into sinister dictators works smoothly — so smoothly that I rather question just what Brooks thought of real DC politicians. Not much, apparently. It’s particularly vicious when compared to the first book, where Brooks contented himself with poking gentle fun at political speeches and their listeners, but still expressed a genuine respect for U.S. political institutions. He also, for the first time, indicates a strong preference for local government. I can only assume that the radical change came from Brooks’ dismay at national and world events.
I could not exactly find the second half of this book funny. Compelling, yes, and — for a change — fast paced, with almost no digressions, and filled with the crisp dialogue that is the highlight of these books. But funny, no. Consciously or not, Brooks was writing about something he was actually seeing in 1938, transforming it to New York State, and for all of its unreality — we are still dealing with talking animals — it feels all too real, all too easy. Though I did have to admire the way a crucial plot point rests on the completely natural behavior of a fox.
An earlier commentator noted that this book is in a sense a counter to Animal Farm, and yes, it is. Though, since this is still a children’s book, and therefore needs a happy ending, I can say without spoiling too much that the ending of Freddy the Politician is very different than the ending of Animal Farm. But both authors were aware of totalitarianism and fascism, and aware of how easily it can be welcomed — and sometimes even voted in, and how difficult it can be to resist.
If once again this cannot be called the most realistic of books, and even the most wide-eyed, believing child might have problems believing that a pig can convincingly portray an elderly Irish woman, complete with a mild brogue, this is also one of the most engrossing books yet in the series, a brilliant portrayal of just how easy it is to get trapped by the lies of politicians — while retaining hope that corrupt governments can be, with effort and cleverness, overthrown. A hopeful message at the advent of World War II, and still offering hope today.
Mari Ness thinks everyone should think about voting for Mrs. Wiggins in the upcoming U.S. election, if at the least for “Most Thoroughly Sensible Cow.” She lives in central Florida.