Charlotte was both

Mallory was required to read Charlotte's Web over the summer; what ended up happening was me reading it aloud to her. We finished tonight, with one day to spare before school starts, and my children proved themselves soulless by not only failing to cry when Charlotte dies, but by giggling at me when I cried.

Although I saw the original Charlotte's Web movie many times as a child, and can still hear the voices of Templeton and Wilbur in my head, I don't think I've ever read the book until now. (I did read and re-read The Trumpet of the Swan several times.) It will seem silly to point this out, but it's a very good book, isn't it? I love the exchange between Mr and Mrs Zuckerman after the first word appears in the web. He says: "A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig."

"Well," said Mrs Zuckerman, "it seems to me you're a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider."

"Oh, no," said Zuckerman. "It's the pig that's unusual. It says so, right there in the middle of the web."

The description of nature, of the changing of the seasons, of the rhythm of life on the farm, are just beautiful (and are, alas, probably why my kids thought the book was boring). But how can you not appreciate this line, about the coming of fall: "A little maple tree in the swamp heard the cricket song and turned bright red with anxiety."

I took issue, however, with Fern. Not at first; of course at first Fern is wonderful, crying injustice to save Wilbur's life, and pushing him around in her baby buggy, and spending her days on the milkstool by the pigpen. But then Mrs Arable talks to the doctor about this odd daughter of hers, and how she claims that the animals talk to her, and although the doctor wisely notes that perhaps children can hear animals talk because they pay better attention, he also makes a prediction that comes true far too soon: that sooner or later Fern will forget about talking animals and turn to something else -- boys, for example. And that's exactly what Fern does, without skipping a beat -- she rides with Henry Fussy on the Ferris Wheel and from then on, she doesn't care one bit about Wilbur. Even when Wilbur's future looks bleak, when the big pig Uncle wins the blue ribbon, Fern just asks for money to ride the Ferris Wheel with Henry again. And when Wilbur whens the special prize at the Fair (twenty-five whole dollars!!) -- instead of rejoicing in her pig's moment of triumph, instead of celebrating that his life is saved, Fern just runs off to be with Henry. And I know that Fern has to grow up, and I know that her growing up has to be part of the story too -- but she's eight. I'm not sure why this eight-year-old girl had to grow up so callously fast, and why Henry Fussy had to be part of the equation at all.

Maybe I just object so strongly because my oldest little girl is about Fern's age, and I'm not ready for her to turn her attention to her own Henry Fussy.

Still and all -- an excellent book. I could make you cry (unless you too are soulless) by quoting the last paragraph, but instead I'll quote the one right before the end, which I think is even better:

Life in the barn was very good -- night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicous cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.


Karen said...

IMHO, there are not many writers whose artistic use of language matches E. B. White.

aimee said...

I related a lot to Fern. I loved the idea of talking to animals and living on a farm (although we had no pigs) and loved the idea of magic. I guess our kids have no clue cause they are city kids.

Chris said...

The few pages I read of the book, I was hearing the voices from the old Hanna Barbera animated movie too...I can still hear Wilbur calling out to Charlotte after she dies, and the little spider babies saying goodbye. And Paul Lynde as Templeton....it was actually a decent adaptation, except for the goofy songs they threw in. I remember the ending making me sad as a kid (I never cried but I did get a lump in my throat...I certainly never laughed), but I have to say that as a parent, the ending, the whole story really is much more poignant. Maybe you have to have that sense of loss and coming full circle in the cycle of life to fully appreciate it. Or maybe our girls just watch too much Nickelodeon.