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Freddy the Pig makes it big
"Let joy be unconfined!" cries Charles the rooster in the children's book Freddy the Detective. Fans of the Freddy the Pig books, by Walter R. Brooks, are echoing Charles' exclamation. In 1997 Overlook Press began reissuing the much-loved but long unavailable series. Thirteen are now back in print, with several more per year coming in the near future. Soon the entire series will be restored to its proper status in the pantheon of immortal children's books. Everyone from the New York Times to USA Today has hailed the resurrection of the literate and witty Freddy books. Recently even CBS News taped material for an upcoming broadcast.
In Freddy the Detective, poor henpecked Charles has been appointed judge of the animals on Bean Farm. To escape his sharp-tongued wife Henrietta, Charles sentences himself to jail time, claiming he feels guilty about a secret past offense. Freddy applies his best detective skills to searching for Charles - only to find the rooster in Freddy's own makeshift jail, leading a dance with the above-quoted exclamation.
This is a typical occurrence in the world of Walter R. Brooks. Imagine Charlotte's Web meets Animal Farm; throw in an ensemble cast and affectionately satirical tone worthy of The Andy Griffith Show; and spice with adventures that would impress Indiana Jones. "Some pig," a spider named Charlotte once wrote of Wilbur. She would have said the same of Freddy. Poet, newspaper publisher, detective, pilot, politician, Freddy is, as the New York Times once noted, a "Renaissance pig."
Walter R. Brooks has the distinction of having invented two of the 20th century's enduring animal characters. He also created Mr. Ed, the talking horse who first appeared in a short story Brooks wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. Freddy, and his comrades at the Bean Farm in upstate New York, first appeared in a novel published in 1927. Twenty-five more volumes followed before the author's death in 1958.
Brooks had a wonderfully unfettered imagination. Take, for example, the adventures in Freddy the Pilot. A villainous comic book publisher named Watson P. Condiment is terrorizing Mr. Boomschmidt's Stupendous and Unexcelled Circus. To help, Freddy must learn to fly a plane. Along the way he also disguises himself in a woman's garden party dress and a veil, and speaks with a high-pitched Spanish accent. The dialogue is pure Walter Brooks when the famously multisyllabic hotel owner discovers Freddy under the veil and says, "Well now ain't this an unanticipated gratification! And these modish habiliments! Well, well; command me, duchess." Not that most of the characters speak that way. That's why Freddy replies, "I wish I had time to swap polysyllables with you, Mr. Groper, but I've got a lot to do." Walter R. Brooks loved words.
In their initial outing, first published under the uninspired title of To and Again (and later republished as you'll find it in the new reprints, as Freddy Goes to Florida), the characters decide to be the first farm animals to migrate. Naturally they have wonderful adventures on their way southward. In the second book, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, the ever-entrepreneurial pig launches a travel service for animals. The Bean Farm gang heads northward.
Later adventures include Freddy the Detective (one of the best in the series, full of nonstop adventure), Freddy the Pilot (also just about perfect, and one of the funniest children's books around) and Freddy the Politician (which preceded Orwell's Animal Farm by several years in its satire of political chicanery).
Incidentally, unlike Orwell's characters, the animals of Bean Farm never have to revolt and overthrow Mr. Bean. That broad-minded farmer has the sense to permit his extraordinary animals great freedom, and they respond with affection and loyalty. One of the triumphs of the series is the way human beings are only mildly surprised to find that the animals speak. Mr. and Mrs. Bean accept that their pig not only talks and walks upright, but also prints a newspaper, learns to fly a plane and becomes famous for his many adventures.
The jacket and interior artwork of recent children's books have metamorphosed Tom Sawyer into a millennial brat and recreated Alice as a blonde moppet in sneakers. Overlook Press understands that the ageless Freddy requires no such cosmetic surgery. They have brought back our porcine hero exactly as he was in his prime. No small part of the series' charm comes from the witty illustrations by Kurt Wiese. Seldom do authors find such a perfect match. The illustrator of everything from Bambi to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Wiese was especially fond of the Freddy books. He was to Walter Brooks what Garth Williams was to the children's books of E. B. White, or what Ernest H. Shepard was to Pooh.
Apparently the facsimile reprints were also a labor of love. The jackets look and feel exactly right. The lovely old two-color endpapers have been precisely recreated. The cloth (not cardboard) bindings are stamped with charming illustrations. Text is printed in its original friendly Baskerville typeface, a look that almost brings a tear to the eye of the bookish child that lurks inside many bookish adults. If you were a Freddyphile in your youth, these lovingly resurrected books will make you curl up on the sofa with Freddy and renounce the adult world's shallow distractions.
There is also a brand-new volume to add to your Freddy shelf. No, Overlook Press hasn't stooped to farming out new adventures. They have wisely limited themselves to fashioning an anthology of greatest witticisms from the famously epigrammatical canon, supplemented with many amusing Wiese drawings. The collaboration of several editors, some of them quite young, The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy the Pig and His Friends distills the best remarks of the characters - Mrs. Wiggins, the modestly commonsensical cow who both runs for president and becomes Freddy's partner in the detective business; Jinx, the skeptical cat; Charles, the vain rooster; and of course Freddy himself and many others. A second new volume, a collection of Freddy's delightful poetry and songs, is in the works.
Most of all, the books are about friendship. "Why should we have to put up with his nonsense," Jinx asks Freddy of one character, "just because you think that way down inside him there's some good qualities?" And the good-hearted and (usually) patient Freddy explains: "It's like digging for buried treasure." Not that Freddy is perfect. He is lazy, vain and occasionally short-tempered. But he is also courageous, inventive and devoted to his comrades. As a result, he and his friends have wonderful adventures - adventures that finally are available to a new generation of readers.
Michael Sims writes about animals both real and fictional, but few mean as much to him as Freddy.
A total of 13 Freddy titles are now available from Overlook Press. Each one is $23.95.
Freddy and the Bean Home News
Freddy Goes to the North Pole
Freddy and the Space Ship
Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans
Freddy and the Baseball Team From Mars
Freddy and the Dragon
Freddy the Politician
Freddy Goes to Florida
Freddy the Detective
Freddy and the Ignormus
Freddy and Mr. Camphor
Freddy the Pilot
The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy and His Friends