Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Originally published in 1952 by Harper & Row Publishers
Wilbur, the runt of the litter, is a pig saved and raised by a girl named Fern. When Wilbur gets too big to live with Fern, he moves to her uncle's farm where he lives in a barn, surrounded by geese, sheep, a rat and a new friend, Charlotte, the spider. Although Fern saved Wilbur when he was first born, she's powerless to save him now that he's gotten bigger and it looks like he just might make a tasty ham for Christmas. But his friendship with Charlotte saves him when the people wake up one morning to find, written in Charlotte's web, the words "Some Pig" above Wilbur's head. People come from far and wide to see the amazing pig and, in the end, Charlotte's friendship saves Wilbur's life.
I read this when I was young, I read it to my children when they were young. I've seen the movie dozens of times. So why did I read it again? Because it works for a couple of the reading challenges I signed up for and it made for a fast read. I didn't really expect to get anything new from the book after all of this time, just a big if nostalgic happiness.
Yet as I read this book this time, I was amazed that I had never fully grasped the violence in this book. How in the world did I not notice that when I was reading this to my kids? White absolutely pulls no punches just because the book is for children. It starts right off with Fern's father heading out the door with an ax to kill Wilbur. Then there's the description of a spider ensnaring a fly. And the part where a sheep describes to Wilbur how the farmer, Zuckerman, is going to kill him. This is a beloved children's classic; what does that say about our need to sanitize books for our children these days? The message I'm getting is that children are perfectly capable of understanding that the world can be a dangerous place, as long as the core message of the book is that everything will be alright when you are surrounded by people who care.
I was also surprised by a passage about the fair. Given that this book was first published in the early 1950's, a time we tend now to think of as a kindler, gentler, safer time, I was surprise to find myself reading about parents being concerned about sending their children off at the fair without an adult. I'll grant you that it would not even have crossed my mind to send a ten-year-old off unsupervised at a fair when my kids were growing up but in my mind, it would have seemed perfectly logical to have done so in 1952.
The burning question for me, after reading the book, is this: why does everyone think that Wilbur is so special? Why in the world do they all find it so much easier to believe that a pig wrote those words in a spider's web than to imagine that a spider did?