No doubt, those of us addicted to film versions of Pride and Prejudice remember the scene in one or another of the productions where Mr. Bennett, in the aftermath of dealing with all of his daughters wayward and otherwise, is sitting in his study enjoying a glass of sherry and chuckling over the humor rising off the pages of his book. This is the Mr. Bennet who declares “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” It is likely he is reading a satire about the folly of his fellow man. But should Darcy and Elizabeth’s little daughter toddle in, he will quickly realize that while Swift might do for a time, Rabelais won’t do at all. And granddaughters have voracious appetites for story time. What Grandpa Bennet wants is a rollicking good read that will entertain them both for many an evening. I would recommend one of the 26 volumes of the Freddy the Pig series by Walter R. Brooks. The ridiculous animal antics would delight the granddaughter, and the pithy observations on the ways of man would delight grandpa.
I will begin with a caveat. While Walter R. Brooks’ short stories for adults were worthy enough to launch the television series Mr. Ed, the humor in these texts is often dark, biting, passing, and proud. Read “The Talking Horse” and you will find that it is so. What these works for adults confirm though is not only does Ageless Children’s Literature transfigure the reader, it can also transfigure the writer. Simply by putting a child before him as his audience, Brooks becomes an author capable of adding to rather than subtracting from the civil order and an author capable of giving us bright, whimsical, memorable, and humble humor which enriches readers of all ages.
Walter R. Brooks is a wit and a satirist. In writing for children, he is also a humorist who calls us to look at ourselves and others in a way that builds up rather than tears down. In fact, it is this desire for the wholeness of the community that is the central principle behind the Freddy the Pig series. In a comic manner, Freddy and his friends will take down those who need to be taken down a peg, but these efforts are all pointed toward preserving the peace and wholeness of the community. Those taken down can either leave as the power-seeking woodpeckers do in Freddy the Politician or they can choose to be part of the goodness of the community as the crow Ferdinand does after repenting of stealing a puppy’s dinner in Freddy the Detective. At times characters are also offered clemency, and their way back into the community is made easier. This is the case with Mr. Garble, the dastardly newspaper editor who was intent on bringing down his animal competition in Freddy and the Bean Home News. Freddy, a very different kind of editor, reveals himself at the outset. He is writing to hold things together:
“Ah, there it is,” said Freddy. “You see, if you had had experience, you’d know that we couldn’t use that last item. We don’t want to print unpleasant things.”
“Pleasant or unpleasant,” snapped Abigail [a duck], “it happened, and it’s news.”
Quite true,” said Freddy. “And yet it could cause trouble. Probably Major Signey was sorry afterwards, and probably he and Mr. Lawrence made up their quarrel and are good friends again. But if this came out in the paper, it would start it up all over again.”
Amid the ridiculous and the humorous, repeatedly these books turn toward community harmony and friendship.
With this positive end before him, Brooks, goes forward to generate bright, whimsical, memorable, and humble humor. We find bright humor in a scene from Freddy and the Perilous Adventure. Here three animals are caught adrift in a hot air balloon with no means of landing and precious little food to share. But how they share the little food they have, one piece of candy, in this very dire situation makes a wonderfully comic scene:
The ducks took the paper off, and then they each took hold of an end and pulled. They pulled and pulled, but all that happened was that the piece of candy got longer. They pulled it until it stretched from one side of the basket to the other, and then of course they couldn’t go any farther. They couldn’t stop, either, because they had taken such a firm hold that they couldn’t get their bills open again. So Freddy took hold in the middle, and then the ducks ate towards it, and pretty soon they were all sitting there with their noses together, trying to chew. And in that way they ate up the piece of candy.
The comic is so intertwined with the perilous throughout these stories that the atmosphere of the books ever veers bright and never dark.
Whimsical humor enters Brook’s stories through his endearing characters and their ingenious ways of going about things. A reader finds he can laugh with these animals but not at them. Mrs. Wiggins the cow is the heart of kindness and too like other kine to be very smart, but she is beloved and respected by all the farm animals. Charles the rooster, hen-pecked, boastful, and an obnoxiously long-winded orator, is still loved because his speeches really are beautiful even though no one can ever remember what they were about. Jinx the cat is sassy, independent, and sarcastic yet he is a close friend of our hero, Freddy the Pig, and no book in the series feels completely satisfying unless the usually good Jinx plays a prominent part. How these animals go about their varied activities only adds to the whimsy and attractiveness of the Bean farm. Weighing iron is made delightful in Freddy and the Bean Home News:
They had put a long plank over a sawhorse, so that it balanced just evenly. Then they had found out just what each animal weighed. A mouse weighed four ounces, a fat chipmunk, half a pound, an average rabbit, a pound and a half, and so on. When a piece of iron was brought in they put it on one end of the seesaw, and then they would add animals to the other end until it balanced. Then they would add up animals and get weight. A piece of iron what weighed three rabbits and a chipmunk, weighed just about five pounds.
Over the course of the series, many a favorite animal is met and many a common problem is cleverly and whimsically solved.
It is a deft handling of language that makes any writing memorable. Brooks creates the memorable by allowing his nimble language to flow through a variety of comic devices. Satire abounds when, in a discussion with animals of uncommon common sense and good humor, Grover the woodpecker, totalitarian politician that he is, finds himself declaring laughter to be a destructive force. In another scene, Brooks plays the well-timed undercut when John, a fox, convinces the farm animals that there are no worries about his presence as he really doesn’t “specially care for chicken,” though he fails to mention his fondness for duck. Other passages finds Brooks colliding words together such as “Beania,” “Armenia,” and “Neurasthenia.” Just for fun, just to create a memorable string of words. There is still more. During a storm-driven hot air balloon ride in Freddy and the Perilous Adventure Brooks works his humor by giving the ridiculous a noble place:
The spiders came up over the edge of the basket, and Freddy found them a cozy refuge from the storm in one of the oiled paper envelopes the sandwiches had been wrapped in. He put the envelope in the hamper, then he and the ducks covered themselves up with blankets and ponchos, and having tucked themselves in carefully, waited for the storm to break. Which it presently did with a blinding flash and a crash as if the whole sky had fallen in on them. The basket gave a lurch as the wind struck it; the rain pelted like hundreds of drums on the stretched rubber of the balloon; and then swaying and jerking crazily, ballon and basket, pig and ducks and spiders, went careering off through the lightening slashed darkness.
The scene is memorable not just because of the majesty of the storm but because of the lovely juxtaposition of five brave adventurers intrepidly braving peril, five brave adventurers who happed to be pig, ducks, and spiders.
Finally, Brooks creates humor that is humble. Freddy, the hero of the series, is capable of a great deal. He is a pig who talks, reads, writes, solves crimes, composes poetry, and holds the Bean farm community together. Yet at the end of the day, he is still a pig, and he knows it. He battles all the fears and difficulties the other animals and his readers face. He does so bravely and humbly as we see in Freddy and the Perilous Adventure:
Of course pigs don’t wear regular clothes, so all Freddy had to put on was an expression when he got up in the morning. And on important mornings it often took him longer to dress that[sic] it would you or me. For he had a good many different expressions. When he went down to the First Animal Bank, of which he was president, he wore the “serious-pig-with-grave-responsibilities-on-his-shoulders” expression. When he was doing detective work, he wore the “keen-eyed-pig-who-misses-nothing” expression. And when he was writing poetry the one he put on was the “dreamy-poetic-pig.” This morning he hesitated between the “intrepid-pig-who-scoffs-at-peril” and the “pig-who-is-about-to-go-up-in-a-balloon-and-thinks-nothing-of it”…The resulting expression was one of such iron determination that it greatly impressed all the animals with whom he talked that morning.
“Why you aren’t scared at all, Freddy,” said Mrs. Wiggins, the cow. “Land sakes, you wouldn’t get me to go up in one of those contraptions.”
“Pooh, you wouldn’t be any more scared than I am” said Freddy truthfully.
Of course, he answers truthfully, for our hero—frightened as he is, is yet an honest pig and a humble pig.
American author Walter R. Brooks wrote the Freddy the Pig books between 1927 and 1958. Their popularity waxes and wanes. The books are currently out of print but abundantly available on line. There is also a stalwart fan base that gathers for a yearly conference to celebrate the funny, humble pig. Still, the pig has to fight for his life. My own local library, caught in its frenetic cycle of purge and purchase, has jettisoned their copies of the series. Alas! Still, I recommend reading Freddy the Pig. Any one of the books in the series will show that edifying humor can be found in Ageless Children’s Literature with a fairly firm guarantee to be light and not dark, whimsical and not biting, memorable and not passing, humble and not proud.