We don’t have to search too far for the inspiration for Freddy the Cowboy (1950): Hollywood Westerns. Author Walter Brooks had already betrayed a great fondness for Hollywood films in the previous Freddy books: the animals are constantly heading to the movie theater, one cat took pride in her encounter with Gregory Peck, and two of the spiders even popped over to California and managed to get themselves on the big screen.
Or maybe he was just really dry of ideas, and figured, okay, why not Westerns—even if cowboys and dude ranches are not exactly the first thing to come to mind when thinking of upstate New York. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s the dry-of-ideas problem that’s happening here, since much of this book seems to be floundering for something to say.
Freddy the Cowboy begins with a confession from the animals on the Bean Farm that life is growing dull. Mind you, given that by this time the animals are used to wars, dirty elections, magic tricks, faked ghosts, traveling circuses and evil mice, “dull” may be a relative term. But it certainly seems to reflect Brooks’ feeling about the Bean farm, at a time after he had left his other editing and writing work to concentrate fully on producing one Freddy book per year. Writing the increasingly popular Freddy books may well have seemed like a more lucrative and less stressful career than working for various New York zines (I suspect several readers here can sympathize). But it also created a problem. Many of the previous Freddy books had often been driven by Brooks’ irritation at various social and political structures. Here, he doesn’t really have anything to be irritated at, unless it’s Hollywood, and he very clearly is more appreciative of than irritated with Hollywood films.
This lack of inspiration shows in the very first chapters, where Brooks decides to just send the animals wandering off to find adventures. I don’t, granted, know much about Brooks’ writing methods, but from this and most of his other Freddy books (with Freddy and the Ignormus as the chief exception), he seems to be less of an “architect” writer (meticulously planning, outlining, and then writing) and more of a “gardening” writer (starting with the first chapter and then just seeing where the book goes.) It’s a method that previously worked well with the Freddy books, giving them a sense that we are just reading about events as they unfolded, and that nobody, even the author, really knows how the story will end – well, happily, but apart from that. But it seems to cause problems here.
In any case, Freddy, accompanied by a rather critical mouse, heads off and discovers a cruel cowboy beating a bronco horse. Rodeos were often accused (rightly or wrongly), of abusing animals, and the sight of a cowboy whipping a horse was always a sure sign that this would be one of the Bad Guys. As it is here: the cowboy in question is a Mr. Flint, and he is a classic villain and gunslinger. He even wears a proper ten gallon hat. (Freddy thinks, correctly, that the look does not exactly fit New York State.) And he drops plenty of “pardners” and “aints” and uses a proper John Wayne sort of drawl. Freddy, in response, is equally John Waynish. Well, perhaps overly John Waynish.
Mr. Flint is not exactly ready to rob a train, but he is ready to rob a bank — the First Animal Bank – and, as any good Western villain, he uses a mean gun. On a more respectable note, he also runs a small dude ranch. I would not have thought that upstate New York was the best place for running a small dude ranch, but Mr. Flint assures us that it attracts several people interested in learning how to be a cowboy, and many of them even appear as side characters. Freddy manages to save the bronco, adding yet another animal character to the very long repertoire, but that is hardly the end of his encounters with Mr. Flint, who continues to tangle with and threaten Freddy.
The bronco, Cyclone, does add another interesting sidenote, telling us that he’s heard about the talking animals of the Bean Farm, and is not terribly impressed. After all, other animals, including him, are perfectly well able to talk. But, Cyclone adds, talk is dangerous: it causes constant problems for humans, and will make things even worse for animals. Which, I suppose, explains why the fame of the Bean Farm has not led to more animal conversations throughout the land.
Anyway, pretty much every cliché of every Western you’ve ever seen is pulled out here at one point or another, although Brooks, naturally, can’t help but have fun with it — the tense shoot outs, for instance, involve one water pistol and a gun loaded with blanks. And an owl’s attempt to shoot off a 45 goes poorly for everyone; as Brooks, in yet another quiet note about gun safely, notes that large guns have quite a kick, and can harm people who don’t know how to use them properly. Another scene converts the typical saloon shootout into a considerably less typical department store shootout, though still featuring the counter — and a rather unexpected weapon.
And, oh yes, when he’s not imitating John Wayne, Freddy pulls out a guitar and sings cowboy songs. I do have to say, though, that Freddy’s cowboy songs are among the best parodies of the series so far. Freddy even plays the guitar, just like a Real Hollywood Cowboy, and if you pay close attention, you can match most of the songs to various Real Hollywood Cowboy Tunes.
In a neat plot twist, a sideplot involving the aftereffects of a practical joke and several Horrible Rabbits actually helps save the day at the end. Mrs. Wiggins is her usual wonderful self, and the dialogue is, as always, bubbly and amusing, as are the various images (including poor Mrs. Wiggins having to try to stuff herself into the back of a car to go to Freddy’s rescue.) We get another stop at the jail, this time with cake, and a concern that an about to be released prisoner has been so rehabilitated that the sheriff might not ever see him again, sniffle. More cake helps.
But for all this, Freddy the Cowboy seems somehow, I don’t know, empty. Maybe it’s that I’ve never been that into Westerns. But I think it’s more that this book has a decided filler feel to it, a decided feel of being written for expectations, rather than for the author’s amusement — or to address a troubling issue.
Mari Ness is more of a Gary Cooper fan anyway. She lives in central Florida.