The animals of Bean Farm have long told stories about the Ignormus in the Big Woods. No one, admittedly, is quite sure what an Ignormus is, other than a large, terrifying creature that can eat any animal, who may have caused the disappearance of a rabbit or two. But when things begin to disappear from the Bean Farm—including carefully horded food supplies that the animals and Mr. Bean desperately need for the summer—followed by a series of threatening letters from the Ignoramus itself, the stories turn to pure terror. Worse, some suspicion is even falling on Freddy himself. Freddy!
It all leads to Freddy and the Ignormus, a book that, while still funny and filled with crisp dialogue, has a surprisingly somber tone—and an urgent discussion of fear, courage, reality and belief, overshadowed with the terror of war.
Published in 1941, Freddy and the Ignoramus was written before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year. But Europe and Asia had already been engrossed in the conflict for years, and many Americans (correctly) expected and feared an eventual U.S. entry into war. Freddy and the Ignormus tackles these issues head on. In the process, the book clarifies Brooks’ stance, a strong one given his previous work for the Red Cross: staying on the sidelines was not an option for the United States.
Nor is it an option for Freddy and his friends. Admittedly, Freddy, never the bravest of pigs, is initially all for leaving the Ignormus and the Big Woods completely alone. Shamed by his friends, however—who quickly call him on his reluctance and, well, cowardice—he begins to explore the Woods. Not always bravely, but he does at least enter the Woods. A good thing too, since this allows Freddy to discover that reoccurring villain Simon the Rat has most definitely returned to the area.
The mood of the book turns only darker from here. Freddy alerts the animals through a formal notification to the thoroughly sensible Mrs. Wiggins, still president of the Free Animal Republic, but alerts and awareness only go so far. Eventually, as one animal notes darkly, the Bean Farm is enduring “Worse than robberies...intimidation and threats.” Widowed and young animals are terrified. Animals plan to flee the farm rather than stand up for their rights. Freddy argues against this, with Charles the Rooster joining him:
[Charles the Rooster] “...What do you say, animals? Are you afraid of the Ignoramus?”
He paused for a reply, but for a moment, there was none. Then a small rabbit in the front row said, “Yes.”
“That’s the wrong answer,” said Charles, looking down on him severely.
Freddy rises to make a speech. He admits that everyone, including Charles, is afraid (Charles denies this) and rightfully so.
“But,” continued Freddy, “the greatest bravery is found in those who go ahead, even though they are afraid. That, animals, is what we must do. We must show this superior bravery; we must defend the honor of Bean; we must drive the Ignoramus and his confederates from their lair; we must make the Big Woods safe for the smallest and weakest animal who wishes to walk there.”
Making other places safe was one of the stated goals of the United States when the country finally did enter the war, shortly after the publication of this book. Even before Pearl Harbor, some U.S. voices were arguing that the Nazi threat needed to be answered by the United States. Others, remembering World War I, firmly disagreed, but the idea was used in recruitment posters and rallies. And it works; all of the Bean Farm animals take up the war cause (and unlike the Americans, before they were invaded.) Even those unwarlike ducks Emma and Alice, thinking of the shining example of their uncle, decide to waddle off to war.
Other hints of potential worldwide conflict abound. For the first time, Freddy finds himself handling a gun (with the clear lesson that both people and pigs should know certain gun basics before trying to use a gun). Freddy also has to figure out how to stop—or at least, disable—the more powerful weaponry employed by the Ignoramus, a key concern of those who had watched the swiftness of the Nazi conquests with alarm.
And the Free Animal Republic resembles the United States in one more way as well: it finds itself having to defend its actions to a third party—Mr. Bean. The farmer has spent the last several books treating his animals with extreme kindness. As each book reminds us, his animals not only have extensive freedom, they never seem to get eaten (a fate of most farm pigs) and are housed in barns luxurious by human standards, let along pig and cow standards. Admittedly, Mr. Bean is well aware that his rather remarkable animals can talk and take trips to Florida and the North Pole whenever they wish, which explains part of his attitude, but the animals and Mr. Bean recognize how unusual their arrangement is.
Thus Mr. Bean’s anger when he feels the animals are robbing him—and worse, trotting around with flags and just having a parade and a good time. It’s a realistic reaction from the generally unrealistic (and absent) Mr. Bean, but it too reflects contemporary attitudes of non-Americans angered by what they saw as the uncaring attitudes of Americans. In his role in the New York media, Brooks would have been aware of this, and it seeps into the story here in a bitter confrontation between Mr. Bean and the cows.
But other than Mr. Bean, the humans in Freddy’s world nearly vanish from the scene—this is a story that focuses on the animals, and is all the tighter and more suspenseful for this. Otherwise, the usual gang of characters, plus Simon and his evil rat relatives, all make their appearances as they join in the fight, this time aided by some new insect characters and Minx the Cat, sister of Jinx. Minx, who cannot stop bragging about her previous marvelous experiences of travelling the world, and asserting the superiority of everything she’s seen, has the distinct feel of being based on a real life person who irritated Brooks, but is none the less amusing for all that.
I’ve made this book probably sound much more depressing than it really is. For all of its focus on the fear of the unknown, courage, and shotguns, it still contains several hilarious conversations, Brooks’ usual deadpan observations of society, and, of course, the entertainment of watching Freddy the Pig attempt to be brave, a cow leading an animal army off to war, the irritation of trying to get information about what’s happening behind enemy lines from someone who just wants to complain about his legs, and more, all in a book with considerably tighter plotting and fewer digressions than most of the previous Freddy books.
If the actual conflict is considerably less traumatic than the actual war, and the end rather—how do I put this? Idealistic—well, this is still a book aimed at children. And if attentive readers will solve the mystery long before Freddy does (probably sometime in the third chapter), this does not rob the book of suspense, since the real issue is not the true nature of the Ignoramus, but how animals—or people—can rise up to meet their fears. It’s a good, and for a war book, oddly comforting read.
Frankly, I had not expected this sort of depth from any of the Freddy books—after all, an upcoming book in the series has the title Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars (which I haven’t opened yet), and the first few books, as I noted, were pretty fluffy. Good, but fluffy. This one is considerably more.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida with two cats that she has not caught talking—yet.