Rating: 5/5 stars
I remembered liking the story of Wilbur’s plight, and of Charlotte’s bravery. But that was ages ago, I reasoned, my tastes in literature had changed a lot. They had evolved into increasingly darker tastes, to the extent that I’ve grown very passionate about them. Looking back, I’d seen the 1973 animated film at least once. I recalled being fond of it, but I couldn’t definitively say whether or not I’d actually read the book. Up to that point, I’d decided not to read it on my own, simply because I told myself it wasn’t for me. It’s a kid’s book, I reasoned. After all, I’d seen the cartoon, I knew what happened. Given all of that, I thought it was somehow beneath me, that I had better, more meaningful ways of spending my time.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Approximately two years prior to Charlotte’s Web, I’d wanted to read The Elements of Style by the incomparable William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Not that the latter’s revision of the iconic 1920 publication served as a prerequisite, but if I had simply catapulted myself into White’s fictional world, I might not have the immense appreciation and respect for him that I do. But I digress..
Gradually traversing the eight-five densely composed pages which comprised The Elements of Style, 50th Anniversary Edition, I think that retrospectively, even a few years ago, White’s lovable characters were beckoning. Wilber, Charlotte, Fern, and their barnyard friends were trying to get my attention, across time and space, with their playful winks; blank, bewildered stares; a grunt and a chortle, and so much more.
All or most of those realizations came in hindsight. Deep down, even prior to studying The Elements of Style, I’m fairly confident that I knew I wanted to read Charlotte’s Web, only I suspect I was half-afraid of the strange looks I’d get, or the perceived ridicule upon random strangers in coffee shops or local libraries, seeing me reading a kid’s book. Hence why I kept procrastinating, burying it beneath piles upon piles of TBR books.
Now fast forward to June, 2018, and behold my son’s fixation on the 2006 live-action film, starring a young Dakota Fanning. Carter couldn’t get enough of it. He loved it. In fact, he watched the whole thing three or for times in under a week, which was rare for him and, I suspect, most five-year- old’s. As of this writing, he is seven and a half.
My wife found a slightly used copy shortly thereafter, and we knew we had to read it to him. That time was especially special for me because Charlotte’s Web was his first, full-length chapter book, and reading it aloud to him was a series of unique father-son moments. I also wanted to impart my passion for the written word on to him from an impressionable age, before the world could taint that innocence. He’d already discovered the joy of reading, yet it was my hope that White’s story would help catapult those feelings into a genuine love of it.
On foggy mornings, Charlotte’s web was truly a thing of beauty. This morning each thin strand was decorated with dozens of tiny beads of water. The web glistened in the light and made a pattern of loveliness and mystery, like a delicate veil. Even Lurvy, who wasn’t particularly interested in beauty, noticed the web when he came with the pig’s breakfast. He noted how clearly it showed up and noted how big and carefully built it was. And then he took another look and he saw something that made him set his pail down. There, in the center of the web, neatly woven in block letters, was a message..
Reading Charlotte’s Web quickly became more than the word implies. It transcended the actual act and became something much more, something more than mere escapism. It was akin to entrapment. An entrapment of the spirit, where I finally felt free to be myself, to embrace my inner child, and to show that type of love to my son.
Likewise, it wasn’t just a story. It was seeing E.B. White’s magical and inarguably unique vision fully envelope me, in ways that most books rarely can. All six senses were ubiquitously utilized, but never in a manner that felt cloying, unnecessary, or forced. White made it all too easy to imagine the glistening rain, the vulnerability of dew on the stalks of grass in the wee hours; the orangish-yellow of sunrise. Mr. Zuckerman and the famed farmhouse itself. I heard the chirping and humming in the air. I felt the tension and suspense as the fullness of the plot unfolded; the anguish and despair; love and gratitude for friendships formed, developed, and in some cases, lost. The timeless joy of childhood, of growing up in an agricultural environment. I experienced all of those things, felt their complex emotions.
The novel wouldn’t be complete without its fair share of sorrow and laughter, both of which were plentiful and natural.
I didn’t expect any of that, not really. Not on such a heartfelt level, and certainly not with the fearlessness with which White took it. Out of the novel’s many impressive elements, the comedic ones took me aback the most. For instance, in Chapter IX, where (view spoiler)
That was hysterical. Carter and I laughed and laughed. I’m pretty sure it was his favorite comedic scene, as well.
”Sleep, sleep, my love, my only,
Deep, deep, in the dung and the dark;
Be not afraid be not lonely!
This is the hour when frogs and thrushes
Praise the world from the woods and the rushes.
Rest with care, my one and only,
Deep in the dung and the dark!”
The “death of summer” signified more than the natural ebb and flow of changing seasons, and in less capable hands such transitions might have felt ill-conceived. At the very least, most attempts likely wouldn’t have been executed with as much finesse–if any– or the seamlessness of sheer imagination and brevity that White consistently displayed throughout the 1952 novel. Those details were shown with the utmost precision, and in ways made unique by the individual characters. The cast was a fairly large one, which made said feats exponentially more astonishing.
The manner that White composed the tale was breathtaking and marvelous. It felt incredibly surreal in its overall complexities. (And make no mistake about it—though it is a beloved children’s book, it was not without its intricacies, some of which rivaled those you might find in an adult novel.) I was enchanted, hypnotized in ways that most content creators simply can’t. Those scenes soon took on otherworldly qualities, both in the sense of mundanity (childhood should be anything but ordinary,) but especially in White’s ability to reel the reader in. I felt as though I was there physically, alongside the characters. I wanted to linger there for a long time. However, the urgency of the plot demanded I do otherwise. So I kept reading, eagerly.
When I did, the narrative coalesced into something even more serious and heartfelt. All the while, the sense of wonder, creativity, and originality prevailed. Another quality became apparent as well: cleverness incarnate.
The death of summer also felt ominous, a harbinger of the inevitable. But being a kid’s book, it obviously wasn’t particularly dark. Not to adults, at least. Rather, it was the natural progression of nature. In fact, the foreshadowing was very subtle, almost non-existent. If I was completely unfamiliar with Charlotte’s Web, I probably wouldn’t have seen it coming: (view spoiler) Alas, it happened, and the story was better off with it. That scene, as sad as it was, made the story that much more real, and relatable.
Thematically, every element came together to serve a much larger purpose, thus showcasing the beauty of life, death, and the importance of maintaining balance. It was very cyclical that way. There was so much taking place—on and below the surface—in the confines of these one hundred and eighty-four pages, that it felt, on some level, almost akin to a spiritual experience. Almost.
Knowing what I did about the inevitable did not make it any easier, either. If anything, knowing how it ended made it a little harder. I dreaded the outcome, as bittersweet as it was. Because of all these elements, I came to appreciate and respect Elwyn Brooks White that much more. I have nothing but love for the guy.
Yet, I’d be remiss to conclude my review on that note, with the assumption that Charlotte’s story was infallible. And, in several ways, it was much more than her story. Instead, it resembled the collective in the fact and manner that it wasn’t only about the loveable and engaging spider. Most of the characters had voices and inner dialogues uniquely their own. Every character mattered, even the obnoxious Templeton. It was omniscient, but it never felt that way. It never felt misguided or one-sided.
As I said, there were flaws– no book is perfect. The most jarring being the underdevelopment of the human characters, such as Fern (albeit not the sole instance.) And although White began strong from page one, he seemed to have gradually turned his attention more towards his barnyard characters. I get that one of his primary focal points was Wilber and his plight, but why not work to achieve similar developments? He surely could have. In my opinion, the story would’ve been that much stronger for it. On the other hand, he wrote with a deft hand creating the likes of Charlotte, Templeton, Lamb, Goose, Gander, and the other animals.
I am NOT criticizing the work. My constrictive criticisms are minimal and, if E.B White were still alive, I’d like to think he’d understand, and maybe give a brief explanation as to why he went the route he did.
In closing, this isn’t just a beloved classic. Undoubtedly, it became my favorite children’s novel.
”Never hurry and never worry.”
–Charlotte A. Cavatica