This is the copy of Charlotte's Web that I bought for myself many years ago, just after college. I have no idea how many times I've read it, but I can say for sure that I've cried every time.
Charlotte's Web by E.B.White
We all know the tale of Charlotte's Web, right?
A sweet story about a superlative pig and the little girl who loves him?
No. Not really.
Every time I reread this book, I'm surprised all over again to remember what it truly is, and what it is not.
Though it's tempting to assume that Wilbur the pig is the star of this story, he is not. Of course, he's a charming little squealer, what with his tender heart, tremendous ability to turn back flips, and willingness to be tucked into a doll stroller for a nap. But Wilbur is not the hero of our story; he's the victim. It's his understandable horror that he will soon be turned into bacon and pork chops that puts the plot properly in motion, and poor Wilbur has no idea how to save himself.
Nor is eight-year-old Fern our heroine. Sure, it's Fern who kick starts the story by saving a newborn piglet from certain death and raising him to healthy adolescence, but her devotion to Wilbur doesn't last. As Wilbur's life is threatened, Fern simply sits idly by and watches as the plan to save him rolls out. And when the plot climaxes in Wilbur's shining moment of redemption a the fair, Fern is off riding the Ferris wheel with icky Henry Fussy, oblivious to Wilbur's triumph and Charlotte's impending tragedy. Fern's life spins away from the rhythms of the barnyard, and in the end, she's no longer relevant to the story.
No, it's Charlotte, wise lady spider, who cleverly saves Wilbur's life and spins out the truth for all to see:
"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing...after all, what's a life anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die...By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that."
As Charlotte gently dies, leaving in Wilbur's capable hands, er, hooves, her 514 babies to be born next spring, she teaches us that the natural cycles of life and death spin ruthlessly on, but friendship never dies.
And though this may be a book meant for children, that is a difficult, painful, beautiful lesson to learn. Thank you, Charlotte, for telling us the truth.
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