Freddy and the Spaceship (1953) begins with a forest fire. Among the losses: several fine trees and a house where the Bismuths, cousins of Mrs. Bean, have been staying for awhile after Mr. Bismuth lost his job in Cleveland. This forces them to move into the Bean Farm, for the detriment of all concerned.
Mr. and Mrs. Bismuth, not to put too fine a point on it, are grifters. Oh, Mr. Bismuth worked a job or two there in Cleveland, but once he arrives at the Bean Farm, he starts exercising his real talents: taking advantage of people’s hospitality and eating a lot, whining his way into favors, demanding payment for terrible home repairs, and framing others for his thefts.
But the real problem arises when Mr. Bismuth starts selling tickets to Mars.
That he can sell any tickets to Mars whatsoever is thanks to laconic inventor Uncle Ben, here back with a spaceship ready to fly off to Mars, an impressive six years before the Soviets managed to send a robot and sixteen years before NASA managed to send people. Even more remarkable: Uncle Ben has accomplished this in what is more or less a back yard with a very limited budget. Those budget limitations perhaps explain why the people of Centerboro are convinced that they can travel to Mars for a mere $5 (as we learn in this book, less than the cost of a nice hat). People are, not surprisingly, rather upset to find that they’ve been tricked by a grifter, but before Freddy can do too much to solve this situation, he and the rest of the pre-selected space adventurers, plus Mrs. Peppercorn, a very bad poet, find themselves shooting off to space.
The spaceship plot is, admittedly, a rather obvious pandering to the popular space fiction of the 1950s, and it is not exactly scientifically accurate, even by the standards of a series featuring talking animals and spiders delivering well attended lectures at movie theatres. But it’s still fun.
Alas, I wish I could say that for the entire book, but the truth is, trying to combine a grifter plot with a spaceship plot does not quite work. At least not in this instance. (Although now that I think about it, I’d love to see the Leverage crew take on a shady spaceship travel deal.) Part of the problem is that it requires too much shifting between plots, often at awkward moments. For instance, just as things get really good with the Martians, who have captured Charles and are besieging the spaceship, the book suddenly gets wrenched back to the farm and the troubles of those very proper ducks Emma and Alice, and even the suggestion that flying saucers might play a part in their problems doesn’t change the problem that we just left Freddy and his friends under attack by Martians. Oh, sure, the book gets back to that plot in another chapter, and oh, sure, at this stage of the series I’m not too worried about the physical safety of any of the characters, but it’s still a terrible bit of pacing.
Even worse is the moment when Freddy and the gang decide to leave Mars to save the Bean Farm. Which, now, really. It’s MARS. MARS. I’m really not sure I can say this enough. You are the first Earthlings to reach another planet and study Mars and meet real live aliens and you are going to give that up to get rid of a grifter on the farm? No way. I mean, granted, my own priorities can sometimes be—what’s the word?—questionable. But not that questionable.
Having said all this, some pretty appalling stuff is happening over in Mars, notably Freddy’s attempt to kidnap a Martian so that he and the others can prove that they’ve really been to Mars. Freddy justifies this decision by remembering the way Columbus kidnapped Native Americans to prove to the Spanish court that he had, indeed, reached Asia. But, still, he couldn’t just kidnap a nice Martian rock? Freddy does change his mind, but only partly for moral reasons. Practical worries (where, exactly, can you keep a kidnapped Martian on an upstate New York farm?) are a worry as well. And readers who are not Americans may find themselves alternatively distressed, amused, or outraged at the way the explorers cheerfully claim the entire planet of Mars in the name of the United States of America, turning it into an American property—despite the Martians actually living there who may have just one or two small objections to this.
I suppose, then, in a sense it’s a good thing that they aren’t even on Mars.
Oh, yes, the spaceship actually left Earth, with a crew consisting of two humans, one talking pig, one talking cat, one talking rooster, one talking dog, and one stowaway talking mouse, but thanks to a minor accident in space, the spaceship gets turned around and ends up back on Earth—right next to the Bean Farm, a massive change in destinations that they fail to recognize because of the earlierforest fire, giving the entire area an unfamiliar look. I suppose.
Brooks drops a few hints, so the revelation isn’t a complete surprise.But after all of the setup to get there, and the initial explorations of “Mars,” it’s still a letdown—played for laughs, but somehow, it’s not really that funny. And the reactions of the characters—almost matter of fact, with the exception of Mrs. Peppercorn, infuriated because she paid a whole $5 to get to Mars and does not think she’s gotten her money’s worth, with reason just feel off. It also just doesn’t feel credible. I recognize that applying the word “credible” to a book featuring talking animals is stretching things a bit, but I find it difficult to believe that after all of the supposed reading and studying they’ve done on Mars, they would fail to notice the sky above them doesn’t have two small moons, and that the ground below them probably shouldn’t have liquid water. That sort of thing.
And in part because the main reason they are back on Earth, not Mars, is to service the other plot—and allow Freddy to take care of the grifters.
It’s not that the grifter plot lacks humor. In fact, it’s better thought out than much of the spaceship plot. Mr. Bismuth is one of the more effective Freddy villains, slimy and unctuous all at once, his family members are all delightfully disgusting, and the trial scene contains the usual sharp observations about courtroom issues. (Although since jury members are supposed to be chosen from registered American, human voters, I have to question the legality of the final half human, half animal jury since the animals can’t vote.)
But all of it—the thefts, the deceptions, the attempts to blame the thefts on others, the grifting, the exploiting the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Bean, the trial scene—it’s all been done before. The spaceship, though, is new, and the series hasn’t featured an exploration theme for awhile. This could have been fun; it should have been fun. But instead, I get the distinct sense that Brooks had recently suffered from the overlengthy stay of some visitors, probably relatives—and not for the first time—turning his mind more to the fantasies of having said visitors routed by a pig than to any fantasies about escape. And this is a lot less fun. At least for readers.
On a brighter note, the book does feature Brooks’ method of utilizing some of his—how shall I put it—less successful attempts at writing poetry, by assigning the terrible verses to one Mrs. Peppercorn. Mrs. Peppercorn’s verses are amusingly bad, what with her tendency to make up words in order to find rhymes, and they also will give pretty much all readers a new appreciation for the poetry of Freddy the Pig.
It’s not a terrible book. But as I said, it’s a bit of a letdown, particularly at this stage of the series.
Mari Ness is a short story author and regularly covers children’s book series and authors on Tor.com. She lives in central Florida.