Sunday night I watched Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) and its follow-up animated special, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown. Given the subject matter and the time (Veterans Day weekend), it seemed appropriate.
In the movie and the special, Charlie Brown and three of his friends (Linus, Peppermint Patty, and Marcie) travel to France as part of a two-week student exchange program, and they have adventures there. There’s the mystery of the chateau where Charlie Brown was invited to stay but where he and Linus are locked out (and forced to sleep in a stable), there’s Peppermint Patty’s doomed romance with Pierre (doomed, because Pierre is interested in Marcie), there’s the little girl in the chateau’s attic, and, in the follow-up special, there’s visits to Omaha Beach and Ypres where Linus can explain some of the history of the two World Wars.
I’m going to set aside the thought that I’d love an edit that combines the film and the special into one seamless whole — begin with the framing sequence from What Have We Learned with Charlie Brown looking at his photos, segue into the film, then end with the the special and the gang’s trip through northern France, and pare out some of the London hijinks from the film for pacing reasons.
The main thought I was left with, though, is this. Are we meant to assume the Violette Honfleur, the little girl in the attic of the French chateau, is Charlie Brown’s first cousin?
During the Great War, Charlie Brown’s grandfather Silas Brown befriended a French woman in the vicinity of Neuve-Chappelle. (I do not recall the exact location of the film, but Neuve-Chappelle was mentioned as being nearby.) After Silas returned to the United States, he and the French woman continued to correspond for a time until he married and had a family. When we’re shown a picture of Silas Brown and the woman from during the war, she seems quite besotted with him. This woman is the grandmother of the little girl in the film, Violette Honfleur, who told her granddaughter stories of Silas, and the girl has a bag with “S Brown” stenciled on it. Somehow, and while it was explained it still wasn’t clear to me, Violette became aware of Charlie Brown’s existence and wrote to him, inviting him to stay at the chateau of her uncle, the Baron.
I’m going to leave aside the age problem, that Charlie Brown in 1980 (when the film came out), when he’s about ten or eleven, has a paternal grandfather who served in Pershing’s army in France in 1918. (I also question whether any American troops were near Neuve-Chappelle in 1918.) And the same for Violette, I’m just going to ignore her age problem as well.
The whole set-up seems odd. Why is Silas Brown’s satchel a treasured family heirloom? Why does Violette hold Silas Brown in such regard? Why would she invite Charlie Brown, a complete stranger, to stay with her at the chateau over her uncle’s objections? Why, when Charlie Brown and Linus are forced to sleep outside, does she surreptitiously feed them and give them blankets?
The idea that Silas Brown was just some random American doughboy who passed through Neuve-Chappelle and left such an impression sixty years later seemed difficult to accept. The conclusion I came to was this: Silas Brown and Violette’s grandmother were intimate during the war, and they produced a child that Silas may never have known about, in spite of their post-war correspondence, that the grandmother raised, perhaps explaining to outsiders that her (non-existent) husband, the child’s father, died in the war. Violette may have known the truth — that Silas Brown was her grandfather — or she may not, believing that her grandfather was a (fictitious) casualty of the trenches. If she did know the truth, either she expected Charlie Brown to figure it out on his own or she decided against telling him. Either way, it made intuitive sense to me that Charlie Brown and Violette were cousins as that solved the oddities of the film’s set-up.
Let me note: it feels deeply strange to consider characters in the Peanuts universe being sexually intimate, because all of the Peanuts characters are children, yet Bon Voyage is a rare case where the actions of adults, even actions many years in the past, have a direct influence on the story involving Charlie Brown and his gang. (Bon Voyage and What Have We Learned are instances where not only do we see adults but they interact with the kids and speak actual words, not trombone sounds.)
Violette’s character design suggests such a connection as she looks like Charlie Brown, albeit a smaller Charlie Brown, with orange-red hair, and it’s especially obvious in profile. Notably, she has the same nose as Charlie Brown and his grandfather Silas, not the longer nose of her grandmother and the film’s other French characters, such as Pierre.
So, is Violette Honfleur Charlie Brown’s cousin? There’s no direct evidence — obviously not, Bon Voyage is an animated children’s film — but I believe a compelling case can be made. Charlie Brown has a secret first cousin, living in France and, in true Peanuts fashion, he’s wholly unaware of the fact, even after her meets her.
Good ol’ Charlie Brown.