“…and there’s Walter R. Brooks, who I’m told is writing another volume of his monumental work on the history of the Bean farm…”
– Mr. Boomschimdt, Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars.
As usual, circus owner Mr. Boomschimdt has problems. Oh, not just the usual circus problems of trying to find enough food for elephants and rhinos, and convincing your rather vain lion to skip the elaborate hair styling and ribbons for a bit, but new problems. First, his newly acquired Martians are bored. Very bored. Second, one of the Martians has vanished, and although that’s somewhat helping with the boredom problem, he now has not only bored Martians to deal with, but worried bored Martians. It can be a dangerous combination for any circus.
X-Files fans will of course know one way to keep aliens entertained: Have them join a baseball team. By mostly sheer coincidence (maybe; while reading this I wondered if the X-Files writers had ever read this book), Freddy comes up with the same idea.
Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars is, not surprisingly, about Freddy and, well, the resulting baseball team from Mars. With some added circus players so someone can actually hit the ball—Martians, being rather short and new to the whole baseball thing, are not very good at actually hitting the ball. Getting walked, sure. Hitting, not so much, which can present some problems when a team actually wants to, you know, score runs. It’s a small thing.
It is also about another one of Freddy’s investigations, this one into the missing Martian and a series of mysterious jewelry thefts throughout New York State. The two plots are somewhat intertwined, since if Freddy can’t solve the kidnapping, the Martians will—gasp—throw the game, no matter how much they love baseball.
(I pause for everyone’s shock that anyone would ever consider throwing a baseball game, particularly in a kid’s book, but look, some people put the safety of family members over baseball games. Everyone okay now? Moving on.)
It also contains yet another horrifying moment of Freddy the Pig cooking bacon. Oh, sure, he’s only doing so to help catch and imprison some criminals, but I can’t help thinking that he should be cooking something else. Anything else. Some nice banana bread. A chocolate cake. I could easily be trapped with chocolate cake, and I have to assume that most criminals—well, at least most criminals in the Freddy books—share the same weakness. But anyway.
One bit of fun is added when the animals begin playing a word game—trying to speak without using one of the letters of the alphabet. (Warning: Trying to speak English without using the letter “e” is virtually impossible, but “r” and “g” can be managed, if you are careful.) Unfortunately, this also leads to a rare case of offensive racial stereotyping. The poetry arguments and parodies also continue, this time combined with an attempt to “improve” Longfellow. (It’s not entirely successful, but I’m not unsympathetic to the anti-Longfellow argument.) Freddy defends traditional rhyme. Mrs. Peppercorn is willing to be experimental. Let us just say the results are, well, mixed, if amusing.
But even with this, as the baseball games, and some hijinks with kidnapping, fake ghosts, Freddy’s fake Irish accent (here finally acknowledged to be terrible) and a couple of bits where Brooks pokes fun at himself, not to mention the amazingly marvelous title, this book often feels tired.
This is partly, I suspect, because so much of this feels like a retread of previous books. Sports teams of disparate species (Freddy Plays Football), fake ghosts (Freddy the Cowboy), kidnapping family members for blackmail (too many previous books to count), robberies (ditto) and so on. Even the characters aren’t new: All of the villains and the supporting characters, with the possible exception of some of the minor members of the opposing baseball team, have been seen before. (And the other team’s cheating by adding ineligible players is straight from Freddy Plays Football.) The mystery is far too easy to guess, partly because, well, it’s the same villains doing their same tricks.
Not helping: Freddy even notes that the villain is just repeating his old tricks, and, in a first for the series, mostly gives away the ending to a previous book.
It’s not that the humor, or the helpful advice (including here a note that nitroglycerin is not as easy as you would think to use, good to know, thanks) is missing, or that the book doesn’t have its entertaining moments—although unfortunately, none of the hijinks exactly compete with the highlights of previous books.
But it took me awhile to realize what was really missing: Wonder.
The very first Freddy book was full of this: Wonder that the animals could choose to leave the Bean Farm on their own and visit Florida for the winter; wonder that they could perfectly well understand human speech, survive an alligator encounter, and find treasure. Later adventures never matched that same sense of wonder, but characters still remained amazed at the various exploits of the animals and their skills. Even after Freddy had managed to create a detective agency, run a newspaper, save Santa Claus, and take a balloon trip, people remained stunned that he could learn magic tricks.
Here? Everything just seems, so, well, humdrum. Oh, Freddy’s disguises fool and trick a few people, and the fake ghost gives Freddy and Jinx some bad moments—but again, we’ve seen the ghost before, and these moments don’t last long. And no one seems to have any, well, awe and wonder—even though they are playing baseball with Martians. Real Martians. Even with a flying saucer zipping around. This in turn strips the wonder from the book.
Part of the problem is, I suppose, that by this time, the human characters do treat the animal characters as, well, completely normal, giving a decided mundane touch. The book does end with three of the animals complaining about humans, and concluding that animals are superior in virtually all ways. (Freddy even writes a book on the subject.) But for all of their sudden and unexpected insistence on their superiority, the talking animals and the four-armed Martians feel ordinary. And that’s not something I should be feeling in a kid’s book, however wonderful the title.
Mari Ness has been keeping a watchful eye on both cats since the start of this reread, although, no, no words yet, even if she has been successfully able to determine that most of their cries mean “tuna” and “this is MY bed, human!” She lives in central Florida.