Thu
Jun 21 2012 4:00pm

Post-War Transformations: Freddy and the Popinjay

As World War II finally drew to a close, Walter Brooks found himself pondering the question of whether or not friends and enemies could indeed change, or be changed, and how. So although so far, none of the Freddy books focused on character development and change,in the 1945 Freddy and the Popinjay, Brooks tells the intertwined stories of Jimmy, an emotionally abused neighbor’s child; Mac, father of a family of wildcats who enjoy eating small rabbits, whatever the rabbits might think about these tasty habits; and two robins turning themselves into more elaborate birds—or popinjays. All, for various reasons, want or need to transform themselves. And it’s up to Freddy the Pig, in his most heroic (in a quiet way) yet, to help them—or realize that just perhaps, it’s not the best idea.

Also, a courtly tournament almost straight out of the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table except that King Arthur’s tournaments, as I recall, rarely featured pillows, pigs, and reluctant cows. Which I now realize is kinda sad.

Perhaps the person in most need of transformation is Jimmy, the son of a miserly next door neighbor. Although he has the money, Mr. Witherspoon refuses to spend money on anything, including decent clothes or a haircut for his son, and even gets angry when his wife uses, gasp, soap, on the basis that soap costs money. (And, Mr. Witherspoon, saves money by preventing bacterial infections and thus expensive medical bills, but I digress.) Mrs. Witherspoon is even deliberately cutting the boy’s hair badly, in the hopes that this will shame Mr. Witherspoon into paying for a decent haircut, but no go. Worse, Mr. Witherspoon is constantly berating his wife and son.

Not surprisingly, this sort of thing has made Jimmy into a sullen boy who finds it fun to threaten the animals of the Bean Farm, and even torture them by shooting them with rocks. (It would be BB pellets, but fortunately enough, his miserly father refuses to pay for those.) In one case, he even seemingly causes some fairly severe damage to Alice, the adventurous if invariably polite duck, leading most of the Bean Farm animals to demand revenge. The one exception: Freddy, who feels sorry for Jimmy, and thinks that perhaps making friends with the boy—and giving him a chance at fun, baseball, chocolate cake, and decent clothes might do wonders for his attitude. Radical thought.

Freddy is less sanguine, however, when an overly polite wildcat appears with the clear and obvious intent of making friends with all of the farm animals. A little bit of investigation reveals that the wildcat Has a Past, a dark past that includes Evil Doings with Rabbits (yum). Worse, he may have been unrepentant. The little rabbits (here again working as Brooks’ stand-ins for cowardly characters, although they also work as intelligent messengers and spies when needed for plot purposes) are understandably a bit twitchy about this.

Nor is Freddy entirely happy with what is happening with the robins—delightful little creatures who are currently disguising themselves as popinjays, at, I fear, the partial suggestion and some initial encouragement of Freddy. Unfortunately, their new feathers are creating certain personality changes, and unlike the changes happening to Jimmy and the wildcats, these changes may not be for the better—although at least no cute little bunny rabbits get consumed along the way.

If the parallels to contemporary events are not quite as strong or obvious here as they were in previous books, it’s still hard not to draw them. Jimmy’s plot resembles the eventually implemented ideas of some Americans that the best way to create a real, lasting peace would be to improve the economic conditions of post-war Germany and Japan. Mac and the other wildcats very strongly represent the strong suspicions of other Americans that any kind gestures from former enemies should be treated with, well, strong suspicion. The robins, less tied to any particular time period, seem to represent Brooks’ general frustration with wealthy people, and his conviction—expressed in other books as well—that wearing fine clothing and jewelry was not only pointless, but also directly led to moral degeneration.

Other allusions to the worldwide conflict still appear here and there—the wealthy Mrs. Church, for instance, has given up her car to save on gasoline, forcing her chauffeur to take her around by bicycle cart. But this is clearly a book that sees the end of war, and is ready to move on.

Jimmy, incidentally, is the first interesting human child in the entire series. As commenters noted, Brooks had a habit of introducing various very dull child characters, decreasing their roles in later books, and then having them vanish altogether with absolutely no explanation. This is fine because, again, the children were dull, and the books as a whole are considerably more entertaining when they focus on the animals and the occasional adult who needs to interact with them. Jimmy, however, with his scowls and bad temper, is not only realistic, but also, as the book progresses, a rare, sympathetic and three-dimensional child character—who is also clearly growing up, and will not therefore keep the status of interesting kid for long.

This is also the first book where environmental issues, including land preservation, come to the forefront. It’s not at all surprising that someone who loved animals as much as Brooks obviously did would have gained some strong environmentalist principles. What’s a little more surprising is that it took this long for him to bring them up. Granted, the discussions are happening in a social and economic situation still dealing with shortages—but the assumption seems to be that recycling and land preservation will continue, even after the war.

I’m not sure the book always works, especially in the bits focusing on the wildcats. My own experiences with cats does not lead me to believe that they are even capable of understanding when they’ve done wrong, even if, to give a specific example, they have chosen to throw up ON a bedspread instead of on a nice tile floor that can be easily cleaned and even if the humans of the household have already shouted about this, and then followed this up by leaving dead lizards, guts spread everywhere, all over the couch. Not to drag in my personal problems or anything. And even apart from the wildcats, the book has other problems: it’s considerably preachier than earlier books, with less action, and fewer laugh out loud scenes.

But on the other hand, the bits with the birds becoming hats and the resulting problems with this less than fabulous idea; the grand tournament, complete with pillows; the attempt to use elephant trapping methods on a young boy, and several other details make this yet another delightful Freddy read.

Sidenote: I find I haven’t written much about Brooks’ frequent digressions into the art and process of writing poetry—one of my favorite themes of the series, perhaps because I’m an occasional poet myself. It’s not that the poems themselves are brilliant—Freddy’s poems are just silly, notable mostly for rhyme, meter, and parody. They work largely from humor, and by the obvious to readers truth that Freddy’s poems are not really as good as Freddy thinks they are. But if the poems themselves may not be brilliant, the commentary about Freddy’s writing process—and Brooks’ sarcastic yet insightful comments on poets in general—suggest that Brooks could have had quite a career as a poetry critic. Or that he was just tired of the vast number of questionable poems that had doubtless landed on his desk during his work for The New Yorker:

Now, one of the great difficulties of writing a poem—and I have mentioned several, but this is perhaps the greatest—is that poets feel like writing poems much oftener than they have anything to write about. Some poets don’t realize this, and they go on and write very nice poems which don’t say much of anything.

So true, although I doubt this observation will do much to stop poets from doing this sort of thing. It certainly hasn’t stopped Freddy.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida. When not trying to convince cats not to put their dead lizards on her couch, or reading books, she writes the occasional poem or two.

3 comments
Pamela Adams
4. Pam Adams
My own experiences with cats does not lead me to believe that they are even capable of understanding when they’ve done wrong, I'm sorry- what is this 'wrong' of which you speak?

I'm actually certain that Jimmy's problems are due, not only to a mean father, but to Brooks' habit of getting rid of the other children. Years of reading children's literature has taught me tha the approved way to tame 'bad' children is to use good children as examples. (However, the chocolate cake certainly wouldn't hurt!)
Seth Ellis
5. seth_e
I haven't read this one in a long time, but as I recall, Mac's repentence was pretty instrumental; he recognizes that he has to recognize that he's done wrong in order to get what he wants. And since the other animals think that what he wants is a good thing, they eventually go along with it. It seemed pretty catlike to me.

Mac continues to be a wild card in the rest of the series, the dangerous friend who's sometimes useful to have.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@Pam Adams - I realize this is doubtless old-fashioned of me, but I still think leaving dead lizards guts spread out all over the couch is wrong even if you are an adorable furry creature currently leaning against me watching my fingers move over a keyboard. Easily cleaned kitchen tile! Embrace this for your killing moments! I'm just saying.

As far as the example of good children goes....didn't Beth in Little Women actually have to die before Jo took up the little brooms and dustpans and started to sing while doing housework? And Mary's good examples in the Little House usually sparked Laura into worse and worse behavior -- although Mary was really mostly a prig, so Laura's response, understandable.

@seth-e Oh, I recognize that Mac is mostly apologizing so he can get what he wants. I'm just saying that in my experience of cats they just don't bother to apologize and kinda take what they want (i.e., my lap right now) regardless.

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