“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
And so begins Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, a children’s book that is both surprisingly brutal and extremely sentimental. The big brutal moments (for the child audience) are in Chapter 5, when Wilbur meets Charlotte trapping and eating a fly, Chapter 6 when one of the goose eggs doesn’t hatch and is given to Templeton the rat, and in Chapter 7, appropriately titled “Bad News,” when the oldest sheep tells Wilbur he is being fattened up so that he may be consumed for Christmas dinner. Yet, the descriptions of life on the farm and the passing seasons are bucolic and flowery, and the main premise of the book, Charlotte’s mission to save Wilbur, is emotional, hopeful and a bit naive.
Weaving together the hard practicality of farm life and the tenderhearted, empathetic nature of children, White’s second children’s novel, originally published in 1952, is a contradictory doozy of a little book. Some book, as Charlotte might write in her web.
At times, I felt like I was wading through product placement: Shredded Wheat, Ford, Chevy, Buick, GMC, Plymouth, Studebaker, Packard, De Soto, Frigidaire and Pontiac all get a shout-out. I feel like I missed some. It’s a little annoying that Fern is only 8, but first she’s setting the table for breakfast while her brother is sleeping late and then later, she’s being encouraged to spend more time with the boy Henry Fussy rather than with animals in the barn. During the section when Fern’s mother visits the family doctor to ask if there’s something wrong with her daughter, I really wanted him to say: hey, she might want to be a vet one day. While Charlotte saves Wilbur from becoming Christmas ham, nothing is said about Uncle’s fate after he wins the blue ribbon at the fair, or whether the Zuckermans had goose for Christmas or another ham entirely. But all of that is my cynical adult self’s impression of the book, struggling with the patronizing and slightly inconsistent tone and the moral ambiguity of animal slaughter verses personification of animals for children’s books. I think what my child self latched onto is that both Fern and Charlotte are the heroes of the story. Fern saves the day by speaking up against what she perceives as injustice. Charlotte uses her ability to write to save her friend’s life. Sure, Charlotte dies (spoiler?) and Fern goes off to play with Henry Fussy instead of the animals, but their actions did save Wilbur.
With all the descriptions of communal living among the animals in the barn, I’ll be interested to see how Charlotte’s Web compares to a book I’ll re-read later in this project: Animal Farm.
Unlike with the previous two installments of The Re-Reading Project, I re-read my childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a 1980 reprint, covered in smudges and stains. The edges are battered and worn. Inside the cover, one of my early bookplates mostly covers up where I’d originally written my name and address.
I don’t remember any single experience of reading Charlotte’s Web, but like with Sarah, Plain and Tall, every bit of the story was familiar to me and from the worn condition of my book, I can only conclude that I re-read Charlotte’s Web obsessively between the ages of maybe 5 and 10. I’ve had it on my bookshelves since I moved out of the dorms, but I never read it in any of the years I’ve been documenting my reading (since the age of 13). I know it wasn’t the first book I ever read (that was either Sammy the Seal or Danny and the Dinosaur, both by Syd Hoff), but I must’ve read it pretty young.
In the years I wasn’t re-reading Charlotte’s Web, I was rediscovering White through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (also still on my bookshelf, along with notecards stuck in pages and highlighting). I remember realizing that the tiny textbook was written by the same guy who’d written one of the first books I read as a child. In fact, doing a little research on White for this review, I’m reminded of what a multi-genre writer he was: he published poetry, essays, children’s books, adult novels, letters and textbooks on writing. He was considered one of the most important contributors to The New Yorker during his lifetime and Charlotte’s Web was considered the top children’s novel (for readers 9-12) in a 2012 School Library Journal poll. Well-rounded and long-lasting.