Friday, July 11, 2008
Book Report/Charlotte's Web
by E.B. White
unabridged audio read by the author
juvenile fiction, 1952
"This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children and to amuse myself. It is called 'Charlotte's Web' and I will read it to you." These are the first words on the recording of his book. Yes, it is a story of the barn, and its inhabitants, and the humans who care for them. It is a tale which takes us through the natural year; which we understand as a life's journey as well. I can't count how many times I've listened to these tapes (or read the print version), both with my children and by myself. It is one of those very few books, I must read again and again. I think this is his masterpiece.
When E.B. White died in 1985, William Shawn, former editor of The New Yorker, said. "He never wrote a mean or careless sentence." This is abundantly true in Charlotte's Web.
Tom's favorite line from the book has always been:
And the geese cheered.
I count those geese cheering six times in the chapter, Off to the Fair. They are like a little Greek chorus, commenting on each step of trying to get Wilbur into the crate and then onto the truck which will bring him to the fair.
And when they are just conversing among themselves or with the other animals, they say every word or syllable three times.
Here, here, here.
When Charlotte, the spider, finally asks what all of us wonder, "Why can't you just say 'here'? Why do you have to repeat everything?'" The gander replies,
It's my idio-idio-idiosyncrasy.
I'll bet many children first heard this word in Charlotte's Web, and it illustrates how the author does not 'talk down' to children at all, in either his choice of words or his subject matter. This is a book which doesn't turn away from the hard subjects, like the slaughter of a pig or the death of a spider, and there is always the unspoken appreciation that death will come to us as well.
The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is, says, "Sweet, sweet, sweet interlude; sweet, sweet, sweet interlude."
No sugar coating for children. Charlotte doesn't spare us any details of the grisly work she does, even as Wilbur sits listening, appalled. "You mean you eat flies?" And Charlotte replies, "I have to live, don't I." This is all deep stuff for children, a life truth. That's what we count on from E.B. White, in his essays and in his children's books - the truth. Children may not be able to express it, as indeed I cannot, but we know, we understand what the author is telling us. We absorb it as part of the knowledge which we need. Reading this book is a great way for a child to learn it, or for an adult to be reminded of it.
The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer's ending, a sad, monotonous song. "Summer is over and gone," they sang. "Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying."
The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everyone that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
Everybody heard the song of the crickets. Avery and Fern Arable heard it as they walked the dusty road. They knew school would soon begin again. The young geese heard it and knew that they would never be little goslings again. Charlotte heard it and knew she hadn't much time left. Mrs. Zuckerman, at work in her kitchen, heard the crickets, and a sadness came over her, too. "Another summer gone," she sighed.
And yet, Templeton, the rat, when told by the old sheep that he would live longer if he ate less, says:
"Who wants to live forever?" sneered the rat. "I am naturally a heavy eater and I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast." He patted his stomach, grinned at the sheep, and crept upstairs to lie down.
The book ends with:
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 delicious 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.
It's enough to make the reader cry with the beauty, the wisdom, the deep love of life. It is both a reminder of what this life is all about, and a guide for how to live it.
I write this, coincidentally or maybe not, on the 109th anniversary of E.B. White's birth; "Clearly a lucky day," he once said, "because seven and eleven are lucky numbers." Lucky for him, and lucky for us.