Not to be deterred by the problems with his last trip to space, in Freddy and the Men from Mars, that taciturn human inventor Uncle Ben decides to try to make another expedition with another shiny new rocket. But a complication arises: Martians. (Those aliens. Complicating everything.) Since it’s kinda difficult to justify heading to Mars when the Martians have already come to you, this means one thing: road trip. Also, because this is a Freddy book, rats, a talking cat, that marvelously practical cow Mrs. Wiggins, continuing to try to increase her Levels of Awesomeness in every single book, and the usual other assortment of chatty animals and the humans who talk to them.
Alas, the Martians, as I ranted about at some length, are not from the previous book. Rather these are New Martians, supposedly been captured by reappearing villain Mr. Herbert Grable, in one of the increasingly rare cases of author Walter Brooks trying to conserve characters, and especially bad guys, rather than continue to create still more of them. Many of the supporting characters by this time had been dropped by the wayside entirely or given a one or two sentence cameo appearance, when not completely forgotten about. This particularly holds true for the circus animals, who now feature only two of the original characters from Freddy and Freginald—Leo the Lion and circus owner Mr. Boomschimdt.
Mr. Grable, never one to miss an opportunity to make money, has decided to show off his Martian captives at a circus—Mr. Boomschimdt’s circus, naturally, by now very familiar to Freddy the Pig readers. Surprisingly, this decision does not make anyone skeptical about these supposed Martians. Quite the reverse. Even Washington DC politicians and the president want to see them, and leave absolutely convinced that yes, yes, these little creatures in red suits are indeed Real Martians. (To be fair, the DC incident appears to be another one of Brooks’ ongoing attempts to gently express his complete disgust with all Washington politicians except for President Eisenhower—not incidentally, the only one who pays to see the Martians instead of cheating Mr. Grable.) Even if, as Freddy soon notes, for supposedly Real Martians, they know surprisingly little about, well, Mars.
It should be noted that not everyone thinks the Martians are, in fact, Martians: hearing that they wear red clothes, Mrs. Peppercorn immediately concludes that the Martians are, in fact, Communists. She also suspects Santa Claus of Communist ties, given his red suit and the closeness of the North Pole to Russia, indisputable points. Plus, although she doesn’t mention this, I do kinda have to question the gift giving and the requirement for everyone to be nice, not naughty. Very dictatorial. But I digress. She is not alone in this judgement; at least one U.S. Senator comes to the same conclusion.
Long time readers can be forgiven for guessing what comes next: yes, yes, it’s the rats up to their tricks again. And before anyone accuses Simon the Rat of, well, pigheadedness with his refusal to admit that he will never, ever, beat Freddy, I should point out that in this case, Simon has attempted to start his trickery far away from the Bean Farm, even if he and the rest of the rats inevitably end up near the Bean Farm, in yet another attempt to secure a Real Home in the Big Woods. Not for the first time, I begin to feel sorry for the rats. And long time readers are probably not going to be too alarmed when they hear that two of the little chickens are missing. (Especially since one of them is named Little Broiler, suggesting that his life span was destined to be quite short in any case.) But even long time readers used to Brooks’ wild imagination might be slightly surprised by what comes next: Really Real Martians, in a flying saucer, no less. FINALLY.
You can tell they are Real Martians because they communicate through sign language, clicks, and Old Spider. (It’s apparently a very scholarly sort of language.) This has the added benefit of allowing the Webbs to reappear in another conservation of characters moment. These aliens are distinctly spidery creatures, and Brooks hints that their ancestry might well be Earth based, although the Earth spiders confess that they don’t think they completely understand the history. Not knowing that the Real Martians are in fact Rats (and, later, rabbits), the Really Real Martians have arrived to stage a rescue. It takes some time to clarify matters. And assemble a new weapon consisting of, ugh, rotting onions. (Kids, don’t try that one at home. No. Really. Don’t try that one at home.)
I have to give Walter Brooks some credit here for avoiding the frequent trope of humanoid aliens. Having said that, I also have to say that I’m not altogether thrilled with the concept of arachnid aliens, either, and I feel strong sympathy for one of the villains of the piece (returning antagonist Mrs. Underdunk) who freaks out when she sees spider alien people jumping on her bed. (Apparently, they do not have bouncy beds on Mars. And now you know.) Anyone would.
The book also contains one interesting slip, not caught by Brooks’ editor: the claim that the Free Animal Republic was founded just a little over a year ago. An interesting claim, given that the FAR had been founded several books back (in Freddy the Politician/Mrs. Wiggins for President) and far, far too much has happened since then (including, not exactly at random, a war, Freddy learning how to become a magician and a pilot, the uncovering of some fake ghosts, a balloon trip, a courtship and a wedding, and so on) to comfortably fit into a one year time span. Not to mention increasing fame and interest in their activities. As a character notes:
“And remember, what is in the Bean Home News one afternoon is in the New York Times by morning.”
On the other hand, this does help explain why none of the characters, human or animal, seems to have aged much since 1939.
But other things have, and not just that the animals are no longer collecting for scrap drives and planting Victory Gardens, or that gasoline rationing is so far off in the past that no one thinks anything of popping into a car to drive from Syracuse, NY to Washington, DC.
Such slips may make this seem like only a silly story about fake Martians, real Martians, talking animals and a flying saucer zipping through supposedly harmless upstate New York towns. But beneath this surface silliness some real tensions are going on here. And I’m not talking about fears of invasion by space aliens. (Although given the way everyone pretty much takes both the real and fake Martians in stride, as long as they aren’t stealing things and/or jumping on beds, perhaps Brooks was onto something there as well.)
No, the other thing popping up here, everywhere, is the fear of Communists. This is brought up in the first few pages, treated jokingly, and then reappears again and again. I can’t tell if Brooks thought Communists were actual threats (his previous books would suggest not), but he recorded very real fears of them. And, oddly in a book where people are happily trotting to see Real Live (or Fake) Aliens, it also records, for the first time, a touch of xenophobia, as the animals and people begin to object to people who are different.
The xenophobia doesn’t quite make this into an unhappy book (this is, after all, a Freddy book), but it does mean that tensions abound. As does loose plotting, what with various characters popping in and out and some characters finding themselves unable to explain events (primarily and hilariously with Jinx the Cat, who cannot describe his first ride in a flying saucer.)
Still, the book retains the same hilarious dialogue and amusing bits, and, like many of the previous books, begs to be animated (particularly in the last scene with the rocket, which would be AWESOME. Get on it, Disney. Admittedly, I love rockets, but I still think this scene would be awesome.) And the usual amusing poetry, in this case including a gifted parody of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” a poem Brooks’ young audience may even have known, and which, admittedly, is easy to mock. Not the best of the series, but if you’ve come this far, read along.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida. Her two cats have refused to say whether or not they have taken any recent trips on flying saucers.