Thu
Jun 14 2012 3:00pm

Bugs! In! War! Freddy and Mr. Camphor

“The meeting that evening was probably the largest ever held by bugs in the United States.”

War continues to overshadow those generally cheerful animals of the Bean Farm in the 1943 Freddy and Mr. Camphor. Between writing poetry, running the bank and the Bean Home News, Freddy the Pig is stressed and overworked, in a lesson to us all not to combine poetry, editing, and banking. Victory Gardens are springing up everywhere. Labor is scarce.  Even the spiders and other bugs, displaying a patriotic side I had not previously associated with Phylum Arthopoda, are gearing up for the war effort—and trying to force down the voices of dissidents. For a children’s book, it’s a surprisingly realistic—if still lighthearted—depiction of the tensions in rural upstate New York during World War II.

Freddy indeed is so exhausted that he realizes he needs a vacation of some sort. Luckily, an opportunity arises: a caretaker position at a nearby estate, whose very wealthy owner needs to spend time in Washington DC working a mysterious government job. (My interpretation: the text just says “government job.” Brooks presumably felt that details would bore his child readers, or that his readers would leap to the same conclusion I did: Mr. Camphor is putting his money behind weapons, or better yet, what is later going to become the Avenger initiative. I am mixing my geekdoms again. Pray forgive me.)

All seems delightful at first—three deliciously cooked meals a day, a delightful little houseboat complete with detective novels to live in, and the fun of running the lawnmower. But any hopes of a peaceful vacation are soon dashed when Freddy realizes that he has not one, but two groups of interlopers to deal with: Mr. Winch and his son Horace, rather unpleasant characters who were unnamed villains in a previous book, and Simon the Rat and his extended family, who have happily settled into their role as reoccurring villains in nearly every Freddy the Pig book.

It’s the setup for the usual entertaining hijinks of Freddy and his crew, coupled with a fun subplot where Freddy and his friends attempt to determine if the old proverbs—a rolling stone gathers no moss, you can’t have your cake and eat it too—are indeed true. My favorite proverb was the last one: “There is no friend like a good book,” even if no one can figure out how to test this one.

But what makes this book somewhat more than a mere friend is, as I’ve noted, its war background. The animals and their human friends are not directly involved in World War II. They are safe within upstate New York, have no friends or family overseas, and in this book are untroubled by air raid sirens. (Those did make an appearance in the previous books.) This leaves them caught in an odd limbo of peace and tension. They want to help, very much, but for the most part, cannot, and still have to fill their time.

This leads to two fascinating threads: the bits with the patriotic bugs, and a second bit where Freddy and his friends debate the morals of using the tactics of the enemy – something very much on the minds of Americans at the time.  Jinx, never one for taking the high moral ground, argues that the other side started it; Freddy is less sure.

The bugs are involved in some moral concerns of their own. Almost all of them are highly patriotic, but aware that they can contribute little to the war effort—except, as it happens, refraining from eating those tasty, tasty vegetables in the Bean Victory Garden, consuming weeds instead. The suggestion is at first regarded with more than a touch of suspicion, since the critters making the suggestion are spiders—not heavy vegetable consumers—and the bugs don’t want to starve. The spiders spiderfully refrain from eating their political opponents or tracking them in webs, calling instead for a show of patriotism and shared sacrifice. (Kindly left unmentioned is the minor issue that if the bugs all starve to death, the spiders will have nothing left to eat.)

This is initially responded to with enthusiastic applause, to everyone’s surprise (“Freddy had never thought of bugs as being specially patriotic...”)  But a few of the bugs, especially one called Zero, soon are working to sabotage the war effort, on the basis that in a free country, bugs shouldn’t be listening to spiders and should instead hold an election, and in the meantime, eat whatever they want, since refraining from eating potatoes is not all that patriotic. Not to mention, the spiders, who are leading the don’t eat gardens campaign, are still eating quite well. It’s a compelling argument for some of the other bugs, and soon the insects and spiders are caught in a fierce debate—one echoing similar debates held by Americans. Brooks does not bother to hide his bias here—Zero and his allies are described as the worst and nastiest sorts of bugs, untrustworthy tricksters—but it’s an acknowledgement that not everyone lined up behind the war effort.

In a subplot to the bug subplot, the pomposity and long-windedness of Charles the Rooster are finally put to good use. I can’t help but wonder if Brooks had some actual previously useless orators in mind, who had put their skills to use in keeping up spirits and recruiting new soldiers for the armed forces and workers for the factories.

Let me just note: I’m not exactly a huge fan of bugs, other than butterflies and dragonflies. Sure, I recognize other bugs may have their ecological place, and I can tolerate spiders because they eat bugs, which is pretty awesome, but I have more than once had the thought that I could live, even if plant or other life couldn’t, if every bug on the planet vanished.  So when I say this is a fascinating bug plot, this means something.

I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend Freddy and Mr. Camphor as a starting point for the series—while amusing, it lacks the sharp wit and observations of some of the earlier books, and also gets severely bogged down in bits. But I can recommend it for those wanting a sense of what the rural United States was like for those who did not go to war, and a study of the subtle and not so subtle effects the war had on those waiting at home for its end.


Mari Ness thoroughly approves of anything that convinces insects not to eat the pineapples, blueberries, raspberries and other fruits in the back yard, even patriotic speeches. She lives in central Florida.

9 comments
Peter Ahlstrom
1. PeterAhlstrom
My daughter is a huge fan of bugs. Maybe I'll read this one to her.
Andrew Mason
2. AnotherAndrew
a lesson to us all not to combine poetry, editing, and banking.

Like T.S. Eliot? (Though I don't think he did all three at once.)
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
...wait, if the spiders aren't eating their political opponents, which insects are they eating? Their allies? Neutral parties?

The whole talking animal genre has some very unsettling moments if I think about it too hard.
Pamela Adams
4. Pam Adams
I have more than once had the thought that I could live, even if plant or other life couldn’t, if every bug on the planet vanished

Having lived in central Florida myself, I quite agree...
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@PeterAhlstrom -- This is definitely the Freddy book for bug lovers.

@AnotherAndrew -- I suspect you could combine two of the three. All three, though, will lead you to a nervous breakdown, and we can't all expect to have a housesitting/caretaker job at a mansion awaiting us.

@fadeaccompli -- I am finding myself having to ask less and less and less about what all the animals are eating. Jinx the cat admits to having eaten the occasional mouse, which since they are TALKING MICE is a bit disturbing. And even if he's just eating commercial cat food now my commercial cat food at least CLAIMS that it contains animal products....

@Pam Adams -- I even had this thought while living in upstate New York. And quite definitely in Connecticut.
seth e.
6. seth e.
You know, as you go through this whole series, it's been occurring to me that though I love the whole thing back to front, I can't really point to any one story and call it a great book. It's the series as a whole that I like--of course partly because I loved it as a kid, but also because it has a combination of deadpan absurdity and intelligent kindness that I've hardly seen in any other children's book.

ETA: speaking of deadpan absurdity, part of the captcha was a fragment of newspaper text at about 6pt, rotated counter-clockwise ninety degrees. Hmm.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
Freddy the Detective and Freddy and the Ignormus seem to stand out in the series so far, but I think you're right -- this in general seems to hold up better as a series than as individual book. Perhaps in part because of the sheer number of repeating characters? At least 60, it seems, beyond the main ones of Freddy, Jinx, Mrs. Wiggins, and Mr. and Mrs. Bean -- I mean, the rats alone consist of about six repeating characters.
seth e.
8. MikeF
Note that Zero, the dissident horsefly in Mr. Webb's patriotic ointment (sorry, I couldn't help myself...), who buzzes around disrupting the other bugs' meetings, shares the same name as Imperial Japan's first-line fighter plane in World War II. Coincidence???
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
Heh. I missed that completely, I admit -- but no, I don't think it's a coincidence.

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