Thu
Sep 6 2012 3:00pm
Pigs! Forgetting! Plots! Freddy and the Dragon

Freddy watching a dragon and a headless horsemanAlthough the last few Freddy books had lacked a certain—what can I call it?—enthusiasm and joy from author Walter R. Brooks, resulting in books of bleakness and bitter cynicism, in 1958 Brooks managed to write one more Freddy book, Freddy and the Dragon. It was to be the last book of the series. It also appears to be the one book of the series no longer in print, although it is easily available from used bookstores or libraries.

In it, Freddy returns from two years of traveling to discover that despite everything he has done for the town of Centerboro, and the indication two books previously that while mayor he completely solved its traffic problems, he is now under suspicion for acts of vandalism and theft. Even his friend the sheriff, director of the most soft-hearted jail in the country, admits that things look bad.

Adding to the problems: a vicious bull has shown up near the Bean Farm, causing trouble. I’ve mentioned before the odd lack of bulls in the Freddy series, mostly because it left me wondering just where Mr. Wiggins, Mr. Wogus and Mr. Wurzburger were, and how exactly the three highly respectable cows were explaining the shocking absence of their husbands. Several married couples do, after all, live on the Bean Farm—the Pomeroys, the Webbs (a delightful example of marital harmony and fidelity—go, spiders, go!)—and of course Charles and Henrietta the chickens and their various offspring.

I suspect the lack of bulls came mostly from Brooks’ original intention of depicting only animals that would be living on a small upstate New York farm and any surrounding wooded areas. Then, too, the farm animals generally stick more or less closely to observed animal behavior (the circus animals do not), and Brooks would doubtless have reasoned that his young readers would not accept the idea of a friendly bull.

Anyway, regardless of why, it’s always been a slightly odd omission, only partly addressed here by the presence of Percy the Bull and a sidenote explaining what happened to the father of the three cows. He was, Brooks explains, a discontented animal, and has not been heard from in some time. That is, until on the very next page, he turns out to be Percy. I don’t exactly want to sound critical, but suspenseful that revelation wasn’t.

This reunion scene lacks something—like, not at random, sentiment, fondness and joy—and initially leads only to two of the cows walking out and Freddy resorting to sarcasm. But it’s the beginning of the second plot, wherein Percy Learns to Be Nice, suggesting that we very well could have had some nice polite bulls all the way through the series. Oh well.

In the third plot, the animals have to help Jimmy make money, and so they decide to create some sort of circus entertainment. This turns out, for various not very interesting reasons, to be a dragon. I mention this plotline only because a) it’s in the title, and b) I cannot express my disappointment enough that this turns out not to be a real dragon. I mean, really. We’ve had talking animals, Santa Claus, Martians, Soviet spies, and we can’t end this series with a real life dragon? Seriously? I am sad.

Anyway, back to the main plot, which turns out to involve a headless horseman and a racketeer from New York City named, mundanely enough, Jack. Since I had already dealt with my disappointment at the lack of real live dragons, I was emotionally ready to handle the revelation that the headless horseman, too, turns out to be fake. And I was delighted to read that those always ladylike ducks Emma and Alice treat the sight of a headless horseman with complete aplomb—they just think it’s an awkward way to carry a head.

Naturally, this leads to a scene where a fake headless horseman encounters a fake dragon.

Which is the problem right there: everything potentially awesome in the main plot—dragons, headless horsemen—-turns out to be a fake. This leaves only small tidbits of real plot—like Jinx teaching a kitten how to purr—woven into the already lurching shifts between the three plots. The circus entertainment, for instance, is largely forgotten about for several chapters (and was for all intents and purposes really only around in order to get a fake dragon into the book). Other minor problems abound: plotholes, poor pacing, forgotten bits of plot, and, well, the kitten plot popping up more or less out of nowhere and going more or less nowhere. Not to mention bits that flatly contradict the end of an earlier book of the series, Freddy and Simon the Dictator.

Towards the end, Brooks does find his magic for one more hilarious scene, featuring a mole pretending to be a psychic. (His predictions tend to be fairly accurate since he is getting inside information from insects and birds.) And I appreciated seeing Mr. and Mrs. Webb receive their full due at last. But it’s a slow and almost tedious read to get there, and a very limp ending to the series.

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So, now that I’ve read through nearly all of the Freddy books, I find myself agreeing with an earlier comment on this blog: Freddy generally holds up much better as a series, and as a creation, than as individual books. A few books do seem to stand out from the rest: Freddy the Detective, one of the funniest books of the series; Freddy the Politician, with its devastating satire of the U.S. political system; Freddy and the Ignormus, a book about facing the fear of the unknown and doing what is right; and, for entirely different reasons, Freddy and Simon the Dictator, a brutal look at how easy it is for revolution to arise and turn into tyranny.

But otherwise, honestly, I have problems remembering one book from the next: they more or less slide into each other. In part, of course, because they feature more or less the same characters (give or take a few circus animals and Martians), and in part because after the first two books of the series, the books generally feature a similar formula: bad guy pops up, Freddy must master new skill (detection, magic, cowboying, flying a plane) which then helps him grab the bad guy. It’s not a bad formula, and because sometimes these skills go wildly wrong, Brooks is able to maintain a certain suspense—not to mention that putting a pig into a cowboy suit or having him perform magic tricks is the sort of thing that really can’t go wrong—and in part because almost all of the books, with the exception of the last three, use pretty much the same tone: light, humorous, and dry.

Having said that, the series holds up better as a series than as individual books, however, I’m not sure I can recommend reading straight through the series as I just did, a process that tends to show up the repetition and weakness of the series—especially with the later books, but also with some of the earlier ones. Hardly unusual, of course, in any long term series, where quality rarely remains consistent throughout the entire run.

So my recommendation, for what it’s worth—certainly grab a Freddy book or two, especially if you have a young child nearby. Especially especially if said young child likes talking cats and other animals. Read slowly, lingering on the dialogue. Enjoy the comments about poetry. And find yourself wondering just what secrets your own household animals might be hiding.

 

You can catch all of Mari Ness’ reread of the Freddy the Pig books here.


The two cats and two fish living with Mari Ness have so far denied any ability to talk, although the cats claim that this is because they have not been given any tuna as an incentive. All of them live in central Florida.

6 comments
Lenny Bailes
1. lennyb
Wiggins for President (of the First Animal Republic)! Freddy the Poet!

Red and gold wagons are coming down the street,
With a Boomschmidt, Boomschmidt, boom, boom, boom! ...

I enjoyed reading your reviews of the series (still a few to catch up with). Thank you.
Seth E.
3. Seth E.
Thanks from me too. I was surprised when I saw you'd started the series, it's one of my favorites from childhood but I always assume no one else has ever heard of it.

I still stand by what I said earlier; the series is better than any individual book. It's probably the nostalgia talking, because I think of the Freddy books as a kind of endless summer, but I'd love to be able to say that the series as a whole is one of the great American children's series. It's a different kind of fantasy, American tall tales rather than pseudo-medieval fantasy, and I wish it were more influential than it is.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Seth E -- I'd definitely like to see the series, particularly the highlights in the middle, get more recognition/influence. Particularly Freddy the Detective, which seems an almost ideal kid's book, and great for adults looking for something to read out loud to their kids -- it works on both the adult and kid level.

I think unfortunately the length of the series may be working against it -- Brooks wrote more Freddy books than Baum wrote Oz books, for instance, and although both certainly followed a very distinct pattern once they settled into their series, by the end the Freddy series was feeling more repetitive than the 14 Baum books, with the distinct exception of Freddy and Simon the Dictator, which was a pretty depressing book.
Pamela Adams
5. Pam Adams
I think the solution is some sort of omnibus edition- 'The Best of Freddy the Pig,' perhaps?

I add my applause to the others above- these re-reads are lots of fun!
Seth E.
6. ericshanower
There is a Freddy omnibus volume, The Freddy Anniversary Collection, although not with all of Mari's recommended titles. It has the first three Freddy books--which does include Freddy the Detective.

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