Temporarily at a loss for more adventures that could feature a talking pig on an upstate New York farm, for his next novel, author Walter Brooks turned to a different sort of story — the tale of traveling circus animals, where Freddy the Pig only makes an appearance in the final chapters. Originally titled The Story of Freginald, it has been reissued under the somewhat misleading title of Freddy and Freginald.
The main character is Freginald, a small bear initially inflicted (in his view) with the name Louise (thanks to a bit of mistaken gender identification). Other bears make fun of him. The bear comforts himself by writing bad poetry (perhaps echoing a certain poetic British bear, although more likely serving as an excuse for Brooks to write silly poems). This seeming timewaster later allows him to get a job with the circus, as the owner, Mr. Boomschimdt, soon realizes that a bear that can hop like a rabbit while reciting his own poems is a sure fire moneymaker.
Not that Mr. Boomschimdt is the greedy sort — indeed, for a circus owner, he’s almost saintly: unable to endure quarrels, going out of his way to ensure that his animals are happy and well fed, wearing, against his will, sweaters knitted by his mother. (The book offers a suggestion or two about how to handle unwanted handknitted sweaters which may prove helpful to young resentful readers.) Almost too good — indeed, his lack of greed and ill will means that the book meanders without much of a point for the first third, before going off on two unrelated sidelines: an encounter with some animals who have, mostly inexplicably, decided to take up the cause of the Confederacy, and an equally dire encounter with a rival circus.
Helping things along: in this book, animals and humans are now able to understand each other perfectly. In the previous books, although the animals had been able to understand most human speech (with the cows occasionally expressing puzzlement over certain difficult words) the opposite had not been true, with Santa Claus the only human completely able to understand animal speech. (Because he’s Santa Claus.) The animals, even Freddy, had been reduced to gestures to make themselves understood — although those gestures had been enough to help Freddy catch and convict two very human robbers and collect a large cash prize as a reward.
Still, the device of allowing a pig and a cat to read Sherlock Holmes stories while being unable to speak had been clumsy, to say the least, and in this book, Brooks gave up the attempt.
This does allow for smoother dialogue — and also helps explain why the humans in the book would quickly take the word of a bear. (I must admit to a few doubts in the previous book that any sheriff would believe the gestures of a pig, no matter how intelligent the pig.) And it helps to explain just why the animals can read — and since they can communicate across species, it only makes sense that they can communicate with animals.
Unfortunately, this change also causes a few issues. For one, it ties the circus animals that much more closely to the humans, resulting in significantly more human/animal interactions — which are less funny than the animal/animal interactions. Second, this also removes a significant obstacle for the characters: in previous books, they had needed to find some way to communicate with their human helpers or antagonists. Here, they can simply use words.
In a larger problem, after the considerably tighter plotting of the previous book, Freddy the Detective, Brooks returns to a considerably more meandering style here, as plot points are raised, then dropped, sometimes but not always to be raised again. For instance, the initial plot where Freginald is unhappy about his name is (mostly) solved in two chapters, dropped entirely, and then briefly brought up again three-quarters of the way through the book, before getting dropped again. Which raises the question of just why it was brought up in the first place, except perhaps as an awkward way to start the story, or explain why Freginald has an interest in poetry, or a need to run away.
The second plot with the pro-Confederacy animals is handled more successfully, but still has the general feel of a detour. And the third plot is mildly exasperating, since it brings up certain issues with the circus never mentioned until that point, as well as bringing Freddy the Pig into the story in a cameo role that mostly serves as a reminder of how much better the previous books had been.
Admittedly, none of the previous books had exactly been tight on plotting or low on digressions, but all three had an overreaching plot of some sort (head to Florida and return; head to the North Pole and return; a pig turns into the Sherlock Holmes of pigs.) This particular book often feels lost — starting one plot here, another there, and another there, never quite managing to flow together. And for some reason, in this book, Florida changes from delightful to dull — perhaps a reflection of a less successful Florida trip by Brooks?
The end of the book, with its tie-in to the previous Freddy the Pig novels, was perhaps meant to boost the popularity of this book in an early example of crossover fiction. But if that was the point, Brooks, like L. Frank Baum before him, found himself disappointed. Amusing as The Story of Freginald can be, it could not quite reach the enjoyment of the Freddy books — and so Brooks, rather than continuing his story of circus animals, found himself returning to the Bean farm.
Mari Ness one dreamed of running away and joining the circus as a clown, but gave up when she could never learn to juggle. She now lives in central Florida.