Those opening Freddy Goes Camping and expecting a story about, well, Freddy going camping, are doomed to disappointment. Oh, camping happens, as does canoeing and frying flapjacks/pancakes over a campfire, and this is all very nice except for the inevitable dishes. But mostly, this is a mingled ghost and detective story, complete with a pig somewhat disguised as a gorilla. If you are thinking that this is a rather, er, unusual costume for a pig, you haven’t been reading enough of the Freddy books.
Freddy is dragged into ghostly investigation activities by old friend Mr. Camphor, here troubled by the arrival of two unpleasant maiden aunts, who have had to leave their holiday hotel thanks to ghosts. Or possible ghosts. Amusingly enough, for a book where everyone happily accepts the presence of talking animals able to go canoeing and pretend to be doctors, nearly everyone is deeply skeptical about the actual existence of ghosts. But Freddy, never one to give up a detecting opportunity, agrees to investigate anyway—and do a little bit of camping along the way.
Also, help participate in the Crowning Moment of Awesome in the series so far, when someone, I kid you not, THROWS A PANCAKE AT A GHOST. From a burning frying pan. Followed by the entrance of a pig in a gorilla mask. I earlier questioned why Disney hadn’t picked this series up, and now I’m really questioning. That scene is crying to be animated.
I don’t think, however, I’ll surprise anyone too much by revealing, almost as quickly as the book does, that the ghosts are, to my severe disappointment, not exactly real ghosts, but rather a con getting pulled by new bad guy Mr. Eha, who has correctly figured out that most guests are not exactly eager to stay in a haunted hotel. (It’s not so much the ghosts, but that things keep breaking and making a lot of noise.) This still provides Freddy with plenty to do, since he has to track down the person behind the fake ghosts—not to mention help Mr. Camphor out with his troublesome aunts. And deal with Simon and his rats, who have decided to return to the area since this always goes so well.
I suspect Simon and co are around in part because the book needs some genuine bad guy to point fingers at until the real bad guy can be identified—something that needs to take up much of the book. Plus, Simon remains an amusing villain—capable of being smarmy, self-righteous, and oily all at once – if not exactly an effective one; by this time, the rest of the animals mostly regard him as nothing but a nuisance, which after so many failed attempts to gain power and cause trouble for the Bean Farm, seems to be accurate enough. Oh, sure, the rats can bite and scheme and destroy things, but as this book shows, they can also be very easily blackmailed, threatened and defeated.
This does, however, leave a gaping hole in the villain department—Mr. Eha is not exactly the most interesting villain we’ve seen either, hilarious though his two major scenes are—the bit with the pancake, and the confrontation at the Bean Farm, complete with extra fake ghosts and a valuable lesson: never combine ghost hunting with porcupines. Don’t say I—and Walter Brooks—didn’t warn you. And he certainly manages to provide a couple of terrifying moments. But as a character he’s just not there much.
Besides, quite possibly the most horrific scene in the entire book was one I was warned about by commentators: a scene where Freddy the Pig and Mr. Camphor, camping by the lake, actually cook bacon. I did check, and the text does not say that Freddy actually eats the bacon—instead, Freddy eats a rather alarming number of flapjacks. But in a later poem, Freddy waxes lyrical about the delicious smell of frying bacon. And he certainly watches Mr. Camphor munching on bacon, which...yes, well. Look, I think most of us can agree that very few things smell as tasty as frying bacon. It’s just disturbing to hear this from a pig.
(I was also appalled by a scene where a character deliberately disposes of DDT by pouring it into the ground near a freshwater lake used as a water source, but I did remind myself of the publication date. That said, kids, don’t do that.)
But entertaining and occasionally horrific as the “ghost” encounters, the camping, and the bacon eating are, this is really a book whose emotional satisfaction belongs to the sideplots. One focuses on a theme that would be all too familiar to many of the Freddy books young and adult readers: adults who will not recognize that you’re grown up now, really. I suspect, alas, that the advice given by the ever practical and continually awesome Mrs. Wiggins will not be particularly effective when used by either ten year olds or grown-ups, but many, many readers will be able to emphasize with Mr. Camphor’s predicament—and the general advice might even prove helpful, or at least worth a try.
But for most readers at this point in the series, I suspect that the most emotionally satisfying bits will come from Mr. Bean. A sensible farmer who doesn’t like the thought of talking animals, and at this point is the only one to have this problem, Mr. Bean has always had an uneasy relationship with the animals. He owns them, after all—here and elsewhere he says that Freddy is his pig—and feels responsible for any debts or damage they may create. (Brooks avoids the moral question of owning sentient beings in the first place.) At the same time, he has been helpless to stop them from trotting off to Florida and the North Pole, taking balloon trips, conducting raids and wars on other farms, solving crimes, and studying magic tricks instead of, just as a thought, preparing to be slaughtered. From time to time, we do see the animals doing actual farm work—planting vegetable gardens and so on—but in the postwar years less and less of this is going on, and more and more time seems to be spent on games, magic tricks, and adventures.
This would be fine if Freddy and the others were children—but they aren’t. It’s not just that they’re animals; they are animals whose best friends (apart from other animals) are usually human adults. With the decided exception of Jinx the Cat, all of the animals—even the not exactly hardworking Freddy—hold adult jobs and responsibilities: running banks and newspapers, parenting, holding lecture tours and so on. The cows are all addressed as adult women—Mrs. Wiggins is always addressed by her married name, with complete respect. Charles and Henrietta are squawkingly married and have even presided over the weddings of their children.
It is fairly clear, both here and in previous books, that Mr. Bean is not entirely comfortable with any of this. Brooks describes it as Mr. Bean not liking that animals can speak, but I think it’s more than that: he has not been comfortable with the thought that his animals—and everyone accepts that they are legally his animals—are not, well, being his animals. He still feeds them; he still houses them; but this is not a normal relationship, and that, Mr. Bean has not become accustomed to.
Which is all a long way towards saying, Mr. Bean’s speech at the end of the book may not exactly be eloquent, but it’s emotionally satisfying. No wonder the animals get a bit choked up. It doesn’t solve any of the above issues, but it does address an important aspect of their relationship.
The book also contains one of Freddy’s decided Poetic Masterpieces, in the form of a Very Sad and Tragic Poem that I suspect will have most adults rolling. Brooks continues to master the form of rollicking, silly verses. And the usual witty dialogue and amusing moments.If it lacks some of the punches of the earlier books, with a theme that can mostly be summarized with “being nice works out better for you than being mean,” it’s still a nice, warm and amusing book.
Mari Ness remains glad that her two cats and assorted fish have not attempted to set up banking services in her house. She lives in central Florida.