In Freddy and the Perilous Adventure, Emma and Alice, those two thoughtful ducks who may be the wealthiest residents of the Bean Farm, have a problem. Or rather, Alice does: her life, she feels, has not been filled with enough adventure and travel, even by duck standards. You would think her adventures on the road to Florida, not to mention participating in a little war in the last Freddy book, would be enough, but not for Alice, who cherishes memories of her brave Uncle Wesley, and demands more from life. The wish lands her, her sister duck, those clever spiders Mr. and Mrs. Webb, and Freddy the Pig into a hot air balloon. Worse, a hot air balloon they can’t control, since the valve that would allow a balloon to go up and down is broken. They can only allow the wind to drive them first west across upstate New York and then east, right back across upstate New York and into the mountains.
Freddy finds himself wishing he had studied more geography so he can figure out when he is likely to fall into Lake Erie or crash into mountains. You listen to that, kids. Geography is important, even for pigs. He also finds himself worrying about his next meal. Aside: one advantage to using a pig as a main character is that the pig is always worried about or interested in food, something we can all relate to. It keeps up a nice state of suspense.
The balloon trip does not, it must be admitted, earn approval from many. Uncle Wesley the duck, for one, expresses matters in a nicely unconcise manner:
And as for ballooning—well, he had no words, he said, to express his opinion of how vulgar and unladylike it was. And then he used about ten thousand words expressing it. It was quite like old times.
Worse, Freddy is accused of stealing the balloon. And far worse—well, from my point of view—the balloon flight and a series of unfortunate accidents and coincidences bring them back in touch with the Boomschimdt circus. Plus, the poor pig must tangle with some tortured mathematics. The ducks must face certain realities about their family members. Even the villain must learn a lesson or two.
This being a Freddy book, it of course comes out all right in the end—and not just because the ducks have had their adventure. It has the usual witty moments and amusing scenes, including Freddy attempting to wrestle the villain in front of an audience, and parachuting mice. But somehow, something seems missing.
It might be the circus. I like the circus, mind you. The characters are all likeable enough, and let’s face it, you can almost never go wrong with combining elephants and mice. But as much as Brooks clearly enjoyed his circus characters—this is at least their second return since their initial appearance—somehow, none of them, even Leo the vain lion, and Mr. Boomschimdt, the somewhat scatter brained, easily distracted owner, feel quite as sharp and realized as the original animals from the Bean Farm.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Brooks is more comfortable with and knowledgeable about farms and farm animals and what happens on farms than he is with the circus. Not that I have any issues with his depiction of a circus, exactly, or what happens there, but his circus descriptions lack the confidence of his farm ones. This is particularly noticeable in this book, where an entire plot point revolves around the farm animals knowing more about how a farm would work—and where a scarecrow should be standing—than some humans from a city. The circus animals show no such insider knowledge. And whenever the story encounters the circus, it seems to stop dead.
Which is not to say that the book doesn’t have its deep moments or moral lessons—in the case of this book, about honesty. Several characters—Freddy, the villain, Uncle Wesley, a group of boys putting on a mock circus—sometimes have, shall we say, a loose sense of morals. Freddy even frankly admits that he doesn’t like being honest, and stays honest only to keep Mr. Bean’s good opinion. His acts of bravery happen for more or less the same reason—to make sure that people like him. The others, however, all learn Important Lessons, since this is a children’s book, Even Uncle Wesley, who needs some convincing and a rather large character motivation learns Important Lessons. And the book also has a few words to say about true heroism and courage, important subjects during times of war.
Still, the book retains a certain—how do I put this—diffuse feeling, as if the author was not quite there while writing it. The pieces are there, the characters are there, but the dialogue has for the most part lost its punch, and the tight plotting of the previous books has been abandoned for the meandering plots of the first book of the series.
Perhaps—and this is just a guess—Brooks turned to this book as an escape and distraction from the U.S. entry into World War II, which at the time of the book’s writing was not going nearly as smoothly as the animal war he had portrayed in the previous book. Or perhaps the book shows his inability to concentrate on silly animal tales when so much else was happening in the world. In previous books, he had been able to work those events into his fiction; here, for whatever reason, he does not do so.
Fortunately, both the ever practical Mrs. Wiggins (who improves in every appearance, further cementing her place in my heart as Best Fictional Cow Ever), Jinx the cat, and some parachuting mice make their appearances. Freddy also briefly pretends to be a scarecrow, which I naturally took as an Oz reference, although I can’t be sure. This book came out after the MGM movie, which Brooks could not have failed to know about, and it’s quite possible that he was familiar with Baum’s work as well, given their somewhat similar takes on talking animals and a desire to write American children’s literature. Even if this bit was not intended as an Oz reference, it still provides several amusing moments—and so far, at least, even a lesser Freddy novel is still a fun read.
Mari Ness rather likes traveling in hot air balloons as long as someone else is controlling them. She lives in central Florida.