I’ve had a busy week, so I decided to start my ten-books-in-three-months challenge with something easy. Everyone knows that books for children are light, and short, particularly when they’re described as ‘especially good for reading aloud‘. Charlotte’s Web seemed an obvious choice.
My first surprise was to discover that it’s illustrated. How could I have forgotten that about books for the under twelves?
Possibly because I rarely notice pictures in text. Unless I’m reading a comic-strip, or graphic novel, illustrations are an interruption. As my family will tell you, it takes a lot to break me out of a book. This one hooked me from the opening.
‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ 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 axe,’ continued Fern, who was only eight.
If my jaw didn’t physically drop, my mind leapt. We’re talking violent death, and the realities of farm life and food production, in a book for children, quite small children. There surely wasn’t any way back from this. As Fern ran out, in tears, to confront her father, I had to turn the page.
I’m not spoiling anything by telling you she saves the piglet, only simplifying the beautifully concise and convincing argument she has with her father. That conversation is a fine demonstration on rounding out characters. I loved this.
I loved all of it. It was the attention to detail, as much as the power of the story that continually surprised and pleased me.
Forward movement never pauses. Fern names the piglet, Wilbur. She feeds him from a baby’s bottle, and for two months he follows her nearly everywhere. In the process, there are some lovely descriptions of what Spring means for children. There’s no time to get complacent about the outcome, though. By the end of chapter two, Fern’s father insists Wilbur must be sold.
I knew what that meant, but I wasn’t sure if a child would. White makes it clear that on the farm, and in nature, the issue of death is never far away. He uses that understanding to build tension, and foreshadow the moment when an old sheep tells Wilbur: ‘…they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you...’
There’s a surprising amount of detail to come on that subject.
‘Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in. There’s a regular conspiracy round here to kill you at Christmastime. Everyone is in on the plot…even John Arable.’
‘Mr Arable?’ sobbed Wilbur. ‘Fern’s father?’
‘Certainly. When a pig is to be butchered, everybody helps. I’m an old sheep and I see the same thing, same old business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the…’
‘Stop!’ screamed Wilbur. ‘I don’t want to die! Save me, somebody! Save me!’
The cause, the point of this story, is finally out in the open. It’s been there all the time, in one form or another, but it’s been easy to forget or ignore the death references because we’ve been concentrating on Wilbur. He is, as the goose tells us, ‘a very innocent little pig’, and charming.
We’re about a third of the way into the book. The stakes are as high as they can get. Wilbur, who has already failed to run away; who has realised that he is too young to survive alone, will die, unless someone comes up with a plan.
Although Fern saved him from the first threat, she’s become increasingly passive. She agreed to sell Wilbur, and on her visits to his new pen, stays on the other side of the fence.
Luckily, she’s been replaced by an interesting range of new characters. Wilbur’s invited every animal on the farm to play with him, and if death is the ’cause’ in this story, friendship is the big theme. His overtures have provided a range of responses and justifications. Only when he touches the depths of disappointment does he find success, and it’s not what he expected.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’
Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend…
Rusty and I settled to read this in a chair by the window, yesterday evening. There was still daylight. As I came to the last few pages I was leaning forward, tilting the words towards the sunset, rather than break my connection with Wilbur and Charlotte by rising to switch on the lamp.
I’m sorry I missed this book as a child, it would have resonated on so many levels, but I’m glad to have found it now. I dismissed it as a light read, earlier, I won’t make that mistake again.
* All illustrations by Garth Williams.