Freddy the Pilot brings something new to the Freddy books: romance. Oh, certainly, in earlier books, a couple of chickens had gotten married; the cows all presumably have (completely unmentioned) husbands since they are all addressed as “Mrs.”; Mr. and Mrs. Bean have their moments of affection; and if Charles and Henrietta the chickens do not always present the happiest picture of married life, they are still together despite his lengthy speeches and occasional cowardice and her hen-pecking. Although I suspect the example of their relationship, watched by friends Freddy the Pig and Jinx the Cat, helps explain why the latter two animals have remained unwed through so many books.
But romance, not so much, and it is perhaps not surprising that the romance in question focuses on someone slightly outside of the series: a human who is part of the Boomschmidt Circus. She is Mademoiselle Rose, who can stand on her head on top of a galloping rhinoceros (as Brooks dryly notes, few can pull off that stunt) and is also beautiful to boot. Naturally, she has many admirers (Brooks also dryly notes that she is one of the main draws to the circus). One, a very wealthy Mr. Condiment, who owns six houses, 15 cars and a yacht, is proving quite persistent. When she turns him down, Mr. Condiment does not take this well. Instead, he tries to buy the circus—and when turned down, promises revenge.
Mr. Condiment first attempts to remove Rose from her job, with the help of an attorney and the Centerboro sheriff, on the basis that said job is endangering Rose. Rose, who has chosen the job, objects, but the men—even the sympathetic sheriff—insist on seeing proof that the job is, in fact, safe. Seemingly tricky, since the job involves riding a tiger. Fortunately, the tiger is a friendly sort who loves children, and allows children to ride on his back—plus one to the safety argument. But then Mr. Condiment unleashes his next trick: buzzing the circus in his private plane, terrorizing the spectators—and forcing Mr. Boomschimidt to refund their money. It’s enough to soon put the circus out of business, and although Rose—spoiler!—is in love with someone else, she’s tempted to give into Mr. Condiment, to help—spoiler!—Mr. Boomschimidt. (I hope I’m not spoiling the romance and mystery too much here, but really, the circus doesn’t have that many men for Rose to fall in love with.)
Unless, of course, Freddy can help—by flying a plane of his own.
If the romance is not altogether convincing (since we don’t see too much of the two lovers), it does provide a strong framework for the usual animal antics. To my surprise, said antics did not include Freddy struggling with mastering how to fly a plane—despite not having fingers, it’s a skill he picks up easily enough. But just mastering flying isn’t quite enough; he also has to find out just where Mr. Condiment is hiding his secret airstrip and convince Mr. Condiment to stop pursuing Rose, something apparently best done in disguise as a woman with a Spanish accent exclaiming over comic books. No, really.
Much of the book is about this and other sorts of pretenses. Not only Freddy’s usual disguises, but also skunks pretending to be Robin Hood and his Merry Men (presumably to give Brooks the chance to play with a fake Robin Hood dialect after the fake Western dialect of the previous book), Mrs. Wiggins pretending to be a Ghostly Countess, Mrs. Bean pretending she is not really interested in flying; Mr. Bean disguising his very real interest in flying so that he doesn’t hurt the feelings of the horse, Rose hiding her True Feelings (not very well) and more. Some of these are done for the sake of politeness (or in Rose’s case….actually, I’m at a loss for that one); but most are done because the animals—and the Beans—want to escape the banality of their lives.
Banality? A farm filled with talking animals who are attempting to stop someone blackmailing a circus while entertaining military personnel? Yes. Even then, the animals still need stories, still need fantasy, still need to feel that they, too, can become Robin Hood. Of course, this being a Brooks book, they can.
Other elements of the book tie it closely—very closely—to the 1950s. It’s not just the romance, although the “I’ll marry the man I hate to save the man I love” has a certain old fashioned ring to it. As does the accepted reality that although Rose has chosen her own career as a circus rider, she legally can be removed from this decision—by men. And not because she is bad at the job, either—she’s very skilled—but because they are the ones who can determine if the job is “safe” for her to do. That this is combined with sexual harassment plus stalking on a grand scale does not make this any better, though I suppose at least Rose does have a career she can take pride in, and at the end—thanks to a pig, a cat and some rabbits and skunks—she is able to choose her own romantic destiny. On the other hand, the final blow to Mr. Condiment is dealt by no less a personage than Mrs. Wiggins herself, continuing her ongoing awesomeness in each and every book. (One of her sisters also finally gets a moment of awesomeness here as well.)
A sideplot looks at another part of the 1950s: the weapons race. I admit I had not considered that a pig would be part of this, but, here he is, speaking to generals and helping with weapons testing. It’s a large switch from previous books, where the animals’ wartime efforts, however patriotic, were largely contained to planting Victory Gardens and rationing gas. Here, nothing is said about patriotism, but quite a lot is said about weapons development, spies (both in the military and as part of the effort to free the circus from Mr. Condiment) and selling false information to the enemy. The real new invention here, however, is television, making its first tiny appearance in the book, to the severe disapproval of Mr. Bean, who does not like inventions, even if he finds himself fairly fond of airplanes.
But against these 1950s themes, the book has something somewhat unexpected for the typical view of the period: a retreat from patriotism. It’s not just that Freddy and the skunks find themselves fascinated with Robin Hood, that symbol of a fight against authority and unjust government. Or that most of the generals come across as incompetent fools. This had also been true of U.S. Senators in the previous Freddy books. But whereas in previous books it was everyone’s duty to support the government in the war, now, it is everyone’s duty to make money, especially in weapons development. One of Uncle Ben’s inventions even helps people find cold hard cash. Very American, and very much in contrast to the wartime books.
Freddy the Pilot also reveals Brooks’ contempt for one form of media: comic books. Comic books, he suggests, are read only by those with less than a second grade education, and also lead impressionable minds to mistake airplanes for space ships. I shall not insult my readers by expanding further on Brooks’ remarks on this subject, but merely note that Brooks could not exactly be said to be unbiased on this point: he was competing for readers with the comics he degrades.
Brooks brings back several old characters for this book, giving it a certain nostalgic touch. Not just the circus (here a little less dull than in previous appearances), but also Uncle Ben from The Clockwork Twin, and of course the team of trained rabbit terrors from the previous books and the other assorted familiar characters. And, for once, he has learned to keep the circus in its place (careful readers might note that this is because some of the previous circus characters have vanished, limiting the number of cameos that need to be inserted.) I also liked the touch of Rose falling for (spoiler!) the fat, funny guy that she has so much in common with, instead of the good looking wealthy guy, although since the wealthy guy also turns out to be a stalker and all around complete jerk I guess it’s not that surprising. All in all, what with the Robin Hood bits, and the parachuting skunks, and their earlier encounter with the angry bunnies, this is definitely one of the Freddy books worth reading.
One more note: my apologies for not keeping up that well with the comments this month; July has been a month of unexpected Bad Stuff. Hopefully things should be back on track in another couple of weeks.
Mari Ness has to admit that she has never, in her wildest dreams, considered riding a rhinoceros. It just looks uncomfortable, for one thing. She lives in central Florida.