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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The artist as a young pig

June 1st, 2003

freddythepigBY DAVID MACLAINE

In just a few days I’ll have finally finished a quest I began forty-five years ago. A package from amazon.com will arrive bearing The Collected Poems of Freddy the Pig, and a couple of hours later I will have finally read every single volume in Walter R. Brooks’ classic children’s series of Freddy books. The majority of the twenty-six titles in the series listed on the back of Freddy and Mr. Camphor, a birthday gift from my grandmother, and the first volume in the series I actually owned, have check marks next to them made by the same ballpoint pen, ticked off within a year of that book’s arrival, when I attempted to tally which volumes in the series I had managed find and read. There are a few more checks added later, in a busy time of tracking down titles, but a few still remain blank: The Collected Poems and a handful of others I have purchased during the last two years. One of them, The Story of Freginald, which arrived a couple of weeks ago, was the very last of the Freddy stories (collected poems are in a different category) that had evaded my attention. The splendid reissue of the series by Overlook Press, which has been proceeding slowly but steadily with several releases each year, is at last on the verge of completion.

Of all the books that made me whatever I am today, the Freddy series had the earliest and most profound impact. The series, written between 1927 and 1958 mostly takes place at a farm in upstate New York whose animals are a little bit different from the ones that go moo and oink in books for tots. The series began with a tale originally (and obscurely) titled To and Again (later renamed Freddy Goes to Florida), in which the animals of the Bean farm get together and decide that nothing but convention prevents them from imitating the birds and traveling south for the winter. The lively characters introduced in this first book include Charles the rooster, a pompous and egotistical orator; Jinx, a sarcastic wisecracking cat; Mrs. Wiggins, a kindly cow with an enormous laugh and an equally large store of common sense; and Freddy, an imaginative and clever young pig who would eventually take over as the series star.

Freddy first took top billing in the series’ third volume Freddy the Detective. The pig’s decision to imitate what he had read in stories about Sherlock Holmes led to lively adventures and the most popular — and durable — volume in the series, available even during those drought years in which the others were no longer in print. From the seventh volume onward Freddy’s name would be in every title, and reissues that involved renaming would eventually put it in all the titles except two: the above-mentioned Freginald and its immediate successor The Clockwork Twin.

The titles reveal one of the traits that made Freddy appealing to me, his refusal to settle down into a single job; he was Freddy the Politician, Freddy the Pied Piper, Freddy the Magician, Freddy the Cowboy, and Freddy the Pilot. Nor was he narrow in what might be called leisure pursuits, as evidenced by Freddy Goes Camping, Freddy Plays Football, and Freddy and the Space Ship. But to distinguish between Freddy’s professional and leisure pursuits is to miss the point of his world view. “Professions” followed one another as rapidly as recreations because to Freddy they were one and the same. He founded an animal bank and a newspaper because they seemed like good ideas, but if the role “editor” or “bank president” became onerous he would shift the job to someone else or simply close up shop when more “important” (read “interesting”) business arose.

His most enduring avocation was that of poet, a low-stress activity especially suited to a pig fond of lying in the shade with his eyes closed in “concentration.” At one point Freddy is told about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Freddy’s response is emphatic: “I’d rather take more naps than the Joneses.”

With Brooks’ fictional pig as my role model I, too, have spent a life moving from one area that has held my interest and offered delight to another, rather than settling down to anything as definite as an actual career. The adventures that unfolded have perhaps not been stuff of lively children’s entertainment, but I found considerable pleasure in such episodes as David the Wargamer, David Goes to College (at an institution, naturally, which offered no majors), David the Critic, David the Teacher, and David the Game Show Contestant. While there were occasions upon which the titles became less pleasing — David the Benefit Authorizer, David the Shipping Clerk, and David Sells CDs — there were usually concurrent adventures like David the Bicyclist, David Plays Soccer, and David and the Nudist Convention to offer compensation.

Freddy’s most endearing trait was his love of books. Not only did he emulate Sherlock Holmes, he also (in Freddy the Pilot) hooked a family of skunks on Robin Hood stories to the point that they took up dueling with quarterstaves and harassing evildoers with arrows tipped with porcupine quills. Books were to be enjoyed and often imitated.

Freddy read Shakespeare with pleasure, so very near the time my grandmother gave me that first precious Freddy book I borrowed a volume from a set of the Bard’s works on her shelf and began to sample those joys, too.

Amazon as of this moment allows only a pre-publication order for Freddy and Simon the Dictator, which I last read some forty years ago and which includes Freddy’s heroic poem commemorating his own victory in a battle against some rebellious animals, achieved by means of a charge Freddy led on his bicycle after his foot accidentally slipped and the bike ran away from him down a steep hill. The model for that poem was, of course, Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

It is Freddy, paragon of all fictional pigs, to whom I owe a life spent in pursuit of leisure, friendship, and good books to read, as well as the conviction that time spent on the creation of comic doggerel is more valuable than hours spent slaving so that the Joneses might take notice. He was truly (though the title was never used in the series) Freddy the Mentor, role model for all of us who think life should be spent in following our bliss. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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