For a book in a series about talking animals doing increasingly improbable things in upstate New York, Freddy Plays Football starts with something certain readers will find all too familiar: a cat sleeping where he is not supposed to be sleeping. (I will now pause while some of you try to adjust to the concept that any cat would do such a thing. Are we all adjusted now? Great. Moving on.) It continues with some journalism tips that sound rather as if a certain author needed to blow off some steam from years of irritated editing of New York journals, before sliding into the main plot—the arrival of Mrs. Bean’s long lost brother, Aaron Doty. Also, Freddy’s accidental introduction to—you guessed it—football.
I might as well be open and honest about my bias here: I have exactly zilch interest in football, and, as it turns out, even the entrance of a talking pig does not do much to increase my interest. Fortunately enough, the title is a bit misleading: sure, Freddy plays football, but that is a decided sideplot of the book. And I’m pretty sure that the final game of football in the book does not exactly follow standard NFL practice. Although, on second thought, I think I’d be much more into watching professional football if the Carolina Panthers or Jacksonville Jaguars actually featured a talking wildcat among the players.
Anyway. Most of the book features Freddy’s ongoing attempts to try to prove that Aaron Doty is not, in fact, Mrs. Bean’s long lost brother, but rather a conman trying to get five thousand dollars out of the Beans—money the farmers don’t actually have. (As the series explains, it’s not that farming doesn’t pay; it’s that the Beans tend to spend their money on home improvements for their remarkable talking animals, with central heating, cushions, very high quality food, and more.) This forces them to take out a loan, not from Freddy’s bank (still in operation, but without those sorts of funds) but from the human-owned bank in Centerboro. Freddy, by now knowing that Aaron is a complete fraud, wants to do anything to prevent this—even if it means humiliating someone that he is coming to like.
Freddy Plays Football offers something new in the Freddyverse: a decidedly grey villain. Previous books had unfriendly villains, dirty villains (in the sense of actual dirt), obnoxious villains, and outright bad guys, along with the occasional repentant villain—or at least a villain who claimed to be sorry. Many were interesting enough characters, but Brooks rarely left their moral status in much doubt—oddly for an author who in various asides continues to argue for the downright indulgence of prisoners and criminals. Convicted criminals serving sentences in the Centerboro jail get comfortable rooms, excellent meals, ice cream, and regular trips to the movies—all as part of the sheriff’s plan to rehabilitate criminals and reintegrate them into society. On a related note, the bad guys in the Freddy books rarely experience any real punishment other than the occasional humiliation and a strong request to leave the Bean farm, immediately, even though they remain, quite clearly, bad guys.
This often happens in children’s literature, which rarely features subtle or realistic punishments, but adds to the oddness of Brooks’ often black and white approach to characters. Thus the interest here with Aaron Doty, the first bad guy—with the arguable exception of Simon the Rat upon occasion—to walk a generally grey line.
Doty has his faults. For one, he is outright lying to the Beans; as both the animals and readers swiftly realize, he is not Mrs. Bean’s brother at all, but rather a travelling conman who happened to find out that he could gain a solid $5000 from the pretense. For two, this is hardly his only lie—Doty is quite fond of telling elaborate stories, most without a grain of truth to them, and bragging about physical and other skills—such as swimming—that he does not possess. He likes to sleep in late—very late—no matter how loudly Charles the Rooster might be crowing. At the same time, however, Aaron, unlike previous bad guys, is actively helpful: he takes the Beans, humans and animals alike, for rides; offers workable solutions for the football problem, is sympathetic, and above all, likeable. It confuses Freddy.
Adding to the moral confusion: Freddy himself is engaged in a couple of questionable activities. He robs a bank, gets his cousin Weedly to pretend to be him at school (to play on the team, Freddy needs to be a full time student, or at least pretend to be one) and create an alibi for the bank robbery, and gets off in court thanks to a lie, the short sightedness of a couple of witnesses, and a clever attorney (Old Whibbley, the owl, in a return appearance.)
This moral ambiguity may stem from its publication year. Freddy Plays Football was entirely conceived and written in a post World War II era under the threat of the Cold War. Or it may stem from Brooks’ need to create more nuanced villains—or his realization that he ought to give his villains the same consideration that his fictional sheriff gives to his fictional prisoners. Whatever the reason, this charming villain is a nice touch—even if he’s accompanied by the less repentant and less charming return villain Mr. Garble.
Along with this are a few other delightful touches—a nod to long time illustrator Kurt Wiese in the middle of the narrative; a fierce conversation about poetry unexpectedly interrupted by the arrival of a man with a gun; the adventures of two spiders in Hollywood, California, and a spider imitating Betty Grable. (This last, we are assured, is “terribly lifelike.” I have no idea if Ms. Grable ever read this book, or what she would have felt about the comparison.)
I’m not sure that it holds up to some of the previous books, and the last football game seems kinda alarming, to say the least, but like the other Freddy books, it’s an amusing read.
Those of you surprised to see Mari Ness able to name not one, but two NFL teams in this post may be reassured to hear that this came about thanks to the help of her brother, not because aliens took over her brain. She lives in central Florida.