Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I admit I had only heard of this book but did not know the story. It was written by an American called Elwyn Brooks White (better known as E. B. White) in 1952. He also wrote Stuart Little which I had definitely heard of; at least as a movie, but not realised that it was also a book by Mr. White. I admit, I am, and always have been, a bit of a literary Philistine. Anyway, if you are equally as unfamiliar with the book as I was, here is a little summary of the story and my straight-to-the-point, Old Dad style thoughts on it.
But first.. Why this book all of a sudden?
First of all let me explain. Dani has been reading this book with his class and every day they read a chapter or two he would tell me all about it on the way back from school. This had been going on for the past few weeks so I decided I had better read the book myself and bought a copy. Dani can keep it or pass it on as a present to someone else. I wanted us both to have read it before we watch the movie together. The famous cartoon creators Hanna-Barbera made an animated version of the story back in 1973 (available on youtube). More recently there is a live action version from 2006 which is the one I want to watch with my son.
This is of course a children’s book about a little girl called Fern who lives on a farm. Her father is about to kill the runt of a litter of pigs with an axe (apparently because runts are a lot of trouble – who knew?) when Fern intervenes and asks to keep it as a pet.
Fern gets attached to the pig and names him Wilbur. When the pig grows a little her dad tells her they must get rid of him and he sells the pig on to Fern’s aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs’ Zuckerman. As luck would have it they only live down the road so Fern is able to go and see her pig every day – which she does. But that does not keep Wilbur safe from the dreaded axe. Because as soon as he is big and fat enough to be turned into bacon sandwiches Mr. Zuckerman also intends to kill him. The clock is ticking for this little piggie. Now that should not be a real problem you would think. Because pigs can’t tell the time or even know what a ticking clock is. Right? WRONG!. This little swine can even talk. He speaks with the other farmyard animals. Not only that but Fern can hear and understand all the conversations.
When one of the animals (a sheep I think) tells Wilbur he will one day become the meaty parts of a cooked breakfast Wilbur is distraught. How can he avoid the inevitable? Well, at this point along comes a spider. No, not that one that frightened little miss Moffett. This one is called Charlotte – presumably a very common name for a spider – and she too can speak. Charlotte takes to Wilbur for some strange reason – we shall come back to that – and works out a plan to save his bacon. Or more like, save him from becoming bacon.
Writing in the Web
While Wilbur thought the writing was on the wall for his porkie arse, the writing would in fact turn out to be in Charlotte’s web – hence the title of the book. The clever spider (more than clever I think you will agree) decides to spin her web with the words ‘SOME PIG’ built into the design. So when the farm hand came down one morning to feed the animals and sees Wilbur standing there proudly with a web above him saying “Some Pig”, he understandably gets a bit spooked. Who wouldn’t? Then he runs and fetches the Zuckermans to show them this miracle. And here is where it all falls apart for me…
Mr. Zuckerman is amazed and thinks the whole thing is a miracle (well it kind of is eh?) and suddenly thinks the pig is great – saying something like “Wow, that’s ‘some pig’ we have there”. Mrs. Zuckerman then reacts exactly as I did and says something like; “Hang on a minute mate. Have you been drinking already this morning? It’s not the pig that’s extraordinary is it? Its the bloody spider that’s amazing!” (That is not quoted from the book, just my take on it. Seriously it was a bit like that though, page 110 in our book to be exact).
Her husband then convinces Mrs. Zuckerman that it can’t be the spider because it is only a common grey barn spider. So it must be the pig. And she falls for it! Really! Oh come on Mrs. Zuckerman, you really have let the sisterhood down there old girl. Now that would never happen if this book was written in 2020 eh? Imagine the outcry!? I guess women really were that dumb back in the good old 1950s after all…. Nice to get a little lesson in historical human anthropology out of a kid’s book.
More Web Messages and the County Fair
Anyway apart from this little side issue the book continues as a classic children’s tale. They think Wilbur is some super fantastic swine so he is saved from the chop at least for a while. Charlotte realises that she must keep up the hard work and makes other messages in her webs as the subterfuge clearly won’t last. Especially as Wilbur is getting fatter and more inviting to the butcher by the day. She spins the words “terrific” and “radiant” on two more occasions. By this time of course loads of people have heard of these ‘miracles’ and have come to see the pig. Wilbur is now more famous than John Wayne (in pig-farming circles) so Mr Zuckerman decides to show off his famous porker at the county fair.
Charlotte spins her final web at the fair – “HUMBLE”. Wilbur wins a special prize and of course there is no way that Mr. Zuckerman is ever going to kill him now. Meanwhile Charlotte has spun and egg sack and laid a load of eggs in it. She is on her last (eight) legs apparently so Wilbur sadly agrees to look after the eggs and takes them back to the farm. They hatch and also speak to Wilbur but most leave. Three of Charlotte’s offspring stay at the farm to keep Wilbur company and all live happily ever after. Sort of…
Meanwhile Fern has lost interest in Wilbur – presumably because he is safe from the chopping block – and has become more interested in some young lad at her school.
With an opening line of; “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”, I thought to myself ‘hello, now this could be quite interesting’. But it never quite lived up to that tense and scary start.
OK, I know it is a children’s book but I just found it hard work after that page 110 thing described above. Dani too spotted that glaring hole in the story-line – immediately. But it did not stop him from enjoying it. He clearly loved it and was noticeably disappointed the days that his teacher never read any of the book to the class. Just as he was very eager to tell me more about it on the days that they did read it.
Aside from that I found Wilbur to be annoying with his constant whining – even if that is a real life porcine trait. I couldn’t quite understand how a spider as clever as Charlotte could take such a liking to him. Then again I don’t understand how a spider can write either. Ah whatever…
Another interesting character is Templeton the rat. He is a sneaky little f@#ker who only helps out when there is something in it for himself – which basically means food. A little stereotyping of poor rats perhaps? I suppose he is the most realistic one in the whole story. And that’s a sad thing to have to say eh?
Overall the story is one of friendship and survival. There is also the message that you can’t avoid death forever. There is also a ‘coming of age’ type twist to it, with Wilbur, but more especially for Fern. This book has won all kinds of awards and regularly features in various ‘top 100’ lists for kid’s books. Or is it ‘top 200’? Well, you get the point I’m sure.
Ah… but that’s just my take on it. Why not read it for yourself? Or buy it for your kids or grandchildren as an excuse? I promise you they will love it.