BOOKS: The Great Pig Escape

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2001:
The Great Pig Escape, by Linda Moller, illustrated by Donald Tesky
O’Brien Press (c/o Independent Publishers Group, 814 N. Franklin St., Chicago, IL 60610), 1990, 2001. 143 pages, paperback; $7.95.
“When one pig, Runtling, finds out from a farm cat that he and his 11 litter mates plus his mother are scheduled to be slaughtered, he finds a way for them to escape, with a little help from a fox and two crows,” summarized Wolf Clifton, our first reader, soon to start the fifth grade. “In the end,” Wolf continued, “the pigs find a new life as pig ploughmen on the farm of Nick and Polly Faraway,” a couple of back-to-the-earthers who arrive just in time to start growing organic produce on the abandoned property where the fleeing pigs find refuge. “It was a very good book,” Wolf ended, “and I think many kids would like it.”

Lest anyone believe the notion of animals trying to escape their fate is mere fantasy, be aware that in the 365 days preceding the writing of this review, animals did get away from slaughterhouses and vehicles taking them to slaughter on at least 37 occasions known to ANIMAL PEOPLE–which is about the annual average, over the past nine years–and each year a few of those animals find their way to sanctuary with people like the Faraways.

Set in Ireland and first published in Dublin more than a decade ago, The Great Pig Escape is a worthy addition to a genre of pigs-as-people social critiques pioneered by the 26 Freddy-the-Pig serials for children, written by Walter R. Brooks between 1927 and 1958. But no one else has ever quite matched Brooks at his peak form in either comic qualities or audaciousness.

An employee of the American Red Cross and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when young, Brooks became editor of the magazine Outlook in 1928, and thereafter advanced humanitarian ideals chiefly through Freddy, who throughout three decades of red-baiting by political figures made a frequent point of his pinkness.

Early in the series, Freddy converted the Bean family of Centreville, New York, to vegetarianism. A constant theme of the Freddy stories was the effort of the Bean family animals to avoid butchery by less humane people, as they turned the Bean farm into a collective of sorts. The farm horse galloped off into a separate series of stories, eventually becoming the talking horse of the mid-1960s TV comedy Mr. Ed.

But Brooks’ pro-animal message was almost buried beneath layers of further sedition, as Freddy mocked the status quo with poetry, ran for political office, and hilariously spoofed scientific excess, capitalism, the arms race, the space race, and tyrants, from Hitler to Stalin to the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Predictably, the Freddy series was sometimes pulled from library shelves as allegedly unfit for young readers, yet it remained wildly popular until the last copies fell apart or were burned by censors. It survives today as theme of numerous web sites.

Relatively few people took Brooks seriously. Neither George Orwell nor E.B. White acknowledged Brooks when they made their respective contributions to the pigs-as-people genre with Animal Farm (1946) and Charlotte’s Web (1950). Since the 1990 debut of The Great Pig Escape, the genre has expanded into film with the Charlotte’s Web video, Babe, Gordy, and a variant acknowledging the “humanity” of poultry, Chicken Run, which like The Great Pig Escape is loosely modeled after the World War II concentration camp film The Great Escape.

Yet all of the stories occur within the context Brooks created, of an obsolescent “Old MacDonald’s Farm” either struggling to survive against the arrival of factory farming or converting to factory methods. No one, so far, seems to have found a way to tell the whole horror story in a manner acceptable to both children and uneasy parents. But Brooks might have, had he lived long enough to see just how far factory farming would go.

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