“Kind of hard to tell where patriotism stops and dishonesty begins,” said the pig.
Although the previous book in the series, Freddy and Simon the Dictator, had seemingly brought the series to a close, in the very next year, for whatever reason (money?) author Walter Brooks decided to bring the talking pig back for yet another adventure in Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans. This time, the character in trouble is that fearless inventor Uncle Ben, thanks to his determination to build a flying saucer based on the flying saucers of those traveling Martians, who, as it turns out, aren’t just skilled at baseball, but also at flying really, really fast. Uncle Ben is certain he can duplicate these results. So are several international governments, who immediately send several groups of spies to capture the flying saucer plans. Paranoia and bleakness abound. You’ve been warned.
To hide the plans, and allow Uncle Ben to continue his work, Freddy concocts an elaborate plan: Uncle Ben will create a series of false plans, which Freddy will steal. He will then allow one of the international gangs of spies to steal the false plans from him. This will have the unfortunate effect of labeling Freddy as a traitor and spy to his country. Given the previous history of the fabulous pig, it’s surprising or perhaps not—just how easily people will believe that Freddy is a Communist—but Freddy bravely states he can do this for his country. Especially since, partly as a result of this, he can later flee for a nice, relaxing cross country trip with his horse, Jinx the cat, and a goat. Lying for the sake of your country does have its rewards.
But getting spies to steal from you is not, apparently, as easy as James Bond movies would suggest. Plus, since international spies apparently are not quite enough to drive the plot, Walter Brooks also adds two more minor plots. The first—the B plot—involves the efforts of one Samuel Jackson the mole (no relation to the considerably cooler actor) to join Freddy and his gang and regain his lost treasure. (An obvious joke about “moles” in a spy novel seems to be just waiting around here, but never gets made.)
The C plot focuses on the elaborate and ongoing wars between ants, in the first truly depressing vision of any animal society that Brooks has given in the series so far. The ants are completely focused on work, efficiency, and war, never pausing to enjoy life—with the exception of Freddy’s pet ant, Jerry, perfectly content to spend only ten hours a week working, and the rest of his time exploring and reading. Some of the ants are even cannibals (although in a series that has featured a pig frying up bacon, I’m really not sure how much we can censure them for this.)
Even by the standards of the series, the plot is—how do I put this—antsy (sorry!), veering here and there, with plots appearing and disappearing. (Spoiler: some of the ant plot never does get resolved.) And as much as I might have complained about the unchanging cast of previous books, I also find myself missing many of the familiar faces here. Oh, most of the animals get a cameo mention or two—but with the arguable exceptions of the Webbs (who get a couple of pages), the mice (who get a few pages more), and Jinx the Cat (who does partake in much of the plot), most of these barely even rate as cameos. Even that notably practical cow, Mrs. Wiggins, the backbone of the animal community and Freddy’s partner in detection, doesn’t get a single line of dialogue, even though she does come along on one of the expeditions. Sniffle. I admit I noticed this more because Mrs. Wiggins is my all time personal favorite in the series, but she’s not the only missing character, and fans of the supporting cast may find themselves disappointed here. (Although I was just as happy to note the absence of the annoying and whiny Uncle Wesley the duck.)
I can’t help wondering if the absence of Mrs. Wiggins signifies something more, as well: the complete lack of common sense anywhere in the book. It’s not that Freddy’s idea to create fake flying saucer plans is a terrible one, although the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. (For one thing, it would not take the international government who finally gained the plans that long to realize the trick—putting Freddy and the entire Bean Farm back into serious danger.) But the larger problem is the book’s assumption that gangs of Communists could be running around upstate New York without anyone trying to stop them—not because I believe the U.S. government would necessarily be going out of their way to chase down potential and real Communists in upstate New York, but because of the way everyone else in the series, hating and despising Communists and eager to prove themselves as patriotic Americans, does go out of the way to hunt down potential and real Communists in upstate New York.
Indeed, the hatred against Communists borders on paranoia. Two random spiders refuse to talk to Freddy on the mere suspicion that he is a Communist (even though he’s just been tied up by actual Communists); the sheriff is deeply concerned about the long term safety of potential Communists in his jail, convinced (with some reason) that his prisoners, who may be thieves and check forgers, but patriotic thieves and check forgers, will harm any potential Communists. Even the mosquitoes object to drinking the blood of Communists, on the basis that they—the mosquitoes—are patriotic Americans, and don’t want to be tainted with the blood of traitors. They prefer to sup on the blood of New York State governors instead, in a rather touching if naïve display of belief in the patriotism of New York state officials. I KID, NEW YORK STATE OFFICIALS.
The paranoia becomes all the more apparent in a reread like this, where I couldn’t help remembering that the four books set in World War II, with animals and humans alike aware of a worldwide conflict, contain not a single mention of a Nazi or of the Japanese, and where animals and humans alike generally thought the best of people—even those mean rats. Here, although the country is not technically at war, everyone, right down to the mosquitoes, sees spies and potential Communists everywhere. To be fair, part of this is because New York State really does have spies and secret agents everywhere—from 17 different countries, the author assures us—but suspicion does not merely fall on the gangs of secret agents. Anyone, we are told, can be a Communist.
I should note that this was a common attitude well after Brooks’ time as well—“Communist” was a major insult and word of terror when I was a kid, although this was in part because I spent part of my childhood in a place where the Communists really did occasionally bomb things and assassinate people. But the insult remained even in places where the Communists were not bombing things; in those places, the threat of nuclear war remained.
At the same time, the Communists hardly seem like serious or dangerous villains. Part of this is the very nature of the Freddy books, which demands that the books end without serious injury to anyone, and with the bad guys either repentant or exiled or both. Part of this, however, seems to come from Brooks’ vacillating attitude towards Communists. He accepts that they are evil traitors after the military plans of the United States, a clear and present danger, but has problems presenting them that way. The chief bad guy, Penobsky, isn’t exactly much of a Communist. As Brooks explains, he is an American who joined the Communist party mostly because he liked the color red and liked the sense of belonging; as Brooks dryly points out, the Rotary Club or the Salvation Army would have worked just as well for that. Despite later trips abroad and training, Penobsky still doesn’t really get Communism, but he does like being a spy, and, again, the sense of belonging.
Brooks’ earlier villains had stolen and lied for greed, for romance, to gain a home, but this is the first time a villain has been motivated by just wanting to feel he belongs to a group. It makes it rather difficult to root against him—and the other villains never become more than faceless, generally incompetent bad guys. (Freddy has a difficult time getting them to steal the plans.) This, and a few other factors, lead to one of the few unsatisfying endings of the books.
Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans also contains some stereotypical statements about Asians and Roma (“gypsies”) which could be considered offensive, as well as speakers of other languages (primarily French and French Canadians) in one of the few examples of xenophobia I can think of from the series.
Freddy completists will want to read this book, of course, and, culturally, it provides an interesting look at feelings towards Communists in the United States during the height of the Cold War. But otherwise, I can’t really recommend this one.
You can catch all of Mari Ness’ reread of the Freddy the Pig books here.
Mari Ness spent part of her childhood in northern Italy. She currently lives in central Florida, where the only explosions she hears on a regular basis are set off nightly by a magical mouse.