“But you do not stop to smell flowers when you are running for your life.”
— Freddy and the Bean Home News
Freddy and the Bean Home News (1943) takes place under the shadows of war. Iron scrap drives and rationing of gasoline and other products are regular features of life now, although since this is the relatively liberal rationing of the United States, and its main protagonist, Freddy the Pig, retains a distinct interest in food, everyone is still eating quite well, enjoying abundant servings of various ice cream flavors and little cakes. (I have to assume, based solely on the books so far, that author Walter Brooks was quite fond of eating, and particularly fond of homemade desserts.) Still, conspicuous consumption of other substances—notably gasoline—is looked down upon. A bitter comment from the town sheriff references the commonly held belief of the period that the wealthy were not exactly doing their fair share of rationing and walking instead of driving.
None of the animals of the Bean Farm have joined or plan to join the U.S. Army, although they are all quite patriotic and eager to participate in iron scrap drives. (It helps that the farm collecting the most scrap will earn a box of cigars and a pennant.) Mrs. Bean regards this as a good thing (“No country can fail to win its wars when even the animals are patriotic!”) But for all this, the chief conflict in Freddy and the Bean Home News is not over warfare, but journalism. As it turns out, a new owner has taken over the Centerboro newspaper, and this spells out trouble for Freddy and his friends.
The new owner is the very wealthy Mrs. Humphrey Underdunk. I am very sorry to tell you that she does not like pigs very much, and was particularly insulted to find herself compared to a pig in the local newspaper—however inadvertently. A saddened Freddy finds that he can longer publish in the local paper. Like many a writer today, he has an instant solution: self-publish, founding the Bean Home News, setting up a fierce rivalry between paper and paper and woman and pig.
The Bean Home News is instantly popular, gaining approval from no less a figure than Mr. Bean himself:
“There’s a paper that’s got some sense to it,” he said.
“What do you mean, Mr. B.?” asked Mrs. Bean.
“I mean, Mrs. B.,” he replied, “there ain’t any politics in it.” He peered at Freddy over his spectacles. “Politics,” he said, “ain’t news. Remember that.”
This distaste for politics is later extended to politicians, particularly in an unkindly portrait of a certain smarmy New York Senator, who speaks loudly of the importance of bravery and protecting women and children—and promptly deserts the first woman he needs to protect, on the grounds that protecting himself (by fleeing) is a matter of national security. And that’s one of his better moments. The book is somewhat kinder with the judicial system in a court trial filled with general hilarity, but Brooks still has some zingers for the judicial process, along with a demonstration of just how easy it can be for outsiders to influence court outcomes even without tampering with a jury. I can’t help but think that Walter Brooks’ more recent time with the media had considerably soured him on national politicians and the U.S. legal system.
Yet, for a book arguing here and elsewhere against politics, it has, shall we say, quite a lot of politics. Brooks reveals some notably liberal views indeed. He argues, for instance, for treating prisoners with extreme consideration (these may be the luckiest prisoners in New York State, if not the planet), in an interesting contrast with the views he expressed in Freddy the Detective, where kindly prison treatment encouraged animals to commit crimes so they would be sent to jail. Brooks also decries the way that various politicians were using war heroes in their political campaigns, ending with yet another caution against trusting politicians.
Nor are politicians using only war heroes: they are also using the media. Indeed, Mrs. Underdunk is using her new newspaper to promote her candidate for sheriff—and argue for more strenuous laws against animals. Not to be outdone, Freddy faithfully prints his version of the story—and argues for continued support of the town sheriff, who, not at all incidentally, happens to be feeding Freddy quite a lot of excellent ice cream. Oh, sure, the sheriff has been a good guy and a friend for several books now, but Freddy’s support for the sheriff does have a certain—forgive the pun—chilling sense behind it.
It’s an interesting study of something Brooks, as a writer and editor for the New Yorker and other journals, understood well: the power of the media to not just report events, but shape them. The media war between the two papers drives much of the plot of the story, as both sides attempt to make their version the accepted one. Brooks, who continued to work in the media during the war, could see this for himself. Opinion pieces did not cease when hostilities began (whatever Mr. Bean and other readers might have thought about them). Newspapers, magazine and radio reporters also had to deal with determining the truth behind wartime propaganda from all governments, potentially propagating said propaganda, and obeying wartime censorship restrictions on troop movements and related matters. Freddy struggles with similar issues; what, exactly, can he, as an editor, ethically print?
The proposed anti-animal laws also allude to an ongoing issue in the series. Freddy and his friends may be able to travel to Florida and the North Pole, set up a bank and an independent newspaper, collect metal for scrap drives, and run a Free Animal Republic, complete with a flag, but they are still animals, able to be bought and sold and potentially killed by the local butcher. They are not completely free. And, somewhat contradicting previous books, here Brooks suggests that not all animals can talk, drawing a distinction between talking animals and dumb beasts. Interestingly, one villain of the book argues for treating the non-talking animals well regardless of their actions (presumably because they are incapable of rational thought); he deems the talking animals, however, dangerous. The more ethical among you, reading about the methods used by the animals to tamper with the prosecution, might agree. The less ethical among you should read about these methods in case you need them later.
For all this, the book never loses its sense of fun. The highlight of the book is possibly the trial scene, where an owl must square off against a human prosecutor—much to the distress of Mrs. Underdunk, who does not approve of birds in courthouses. But a later party scene is another delight, as are the methods used by the animals to win the scrap iron contest. Let’s just say that those of you who hate cats and modern art will be thrilled. It features a remarkably well rounded villain in Mrs. Underdunk, and the usual delight of Freddy, Jinx and Mrs. Wiggins. The cow, incidentally, probably should expand her political ambitions to include the presidency of the United States—I honestly can’t think of anyone better qualified or more trustworthy. Even if she is a cow.
Before anyone takes the political positions of Mari Ness too seriously, readers should note that she has argued for electing a cat as president this year, on the grounds that everyone in Washington, D.C. will get a lot more sleep this year, all to the good. She lives in central Florida.