This past Saturday afternoon, we took the girls to a local elementary school (one of the places we're looking at for Eleanor's kindergarten next year) to see a production of Charlotte's Web, as acted by 4th and 5th graders. School plays are a big hit in our family these days, even when we don't know the kids acting in them -- inspiring, especially for our theater-loving Eleanor.
But I wanted Eleanor's first interaction with Charlotte's Web to be with the book itself -- E.B. White's words, Garth Williams's pictures. We started last week, and finished on Saturday morning.
Without the impetus of the play, I think we would have waited -- I wasn't at all sure how Eleanor would react to Charlotte's death, and all of the other questions of mortality the book raises. My father reminded me of my own reaction: we were on a bus coming back from somewhere, and he says they didn't prepare me well enough, and I fell into hysterical, inconsolable sobbing in public. I think I was about Eleanor's age, maybe a little younger.
With this in mind, but feeling from past experience that Eleanor could probably handle it, we embarked. Jeff did most of the reading: we've been taking turns reading chapter books to Eleanor, so that each of us gets the full experience of one book with her, rather than a few chapters here or there. Because Jeff often works late, and Isabel doesn't yet have the patience for chapter books, this means that some weeks, our chapter book reading is pretty slow. I ceded my claim to Charlotte's Web, listening out of the corner of my ear as I read Gingerbread Girl and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and Niccolini's Song over and over to Isabel. Jeff had never read the book himself, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to get through parts of it without completely breaking down.
It's a brilliant book. E.B. White's language is clear and firm, and he sets a tone of straightforward discussion of tough issues from the first paragraph:
"Where's Papa going with that ax?" 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 ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"
Death, and the desire to escape it, are there right from the beginning. White is both empathetic and unsentimental: you feel for Wilbur, and for Fern and Charlotte (each of whom saves Wilbur's life at one point in the book), but White never lets you forget that death is a necessary and everyday part of life. Wilbur's first interaction with Charlotte involves him learning about the way she sucks the blood from flies and other insects; he's appalled by her bloodthirsty nature, even as he admires her cleverness and wants to be able to be her friend.
If you're looking for it, foreshadowing of Charlotte's death comes early. In Chapter 15, "The Crickets," White writes about the sad intimations of the crickets' song:
Everybody heard the song of the crickets. Avery and Fern Arable heard it as they walked the dusty road. They knew that school would soon begin again. The young geese heard it and knew that they would never be little goslings again. Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn't much time left.
That's where Jeff paused in his Thursday night reading to ask Eleanor, "What do you think that means?" We talked about the lifespan of spiders, how they don't live through the winter, and Eleanor said, "But Charlotte will! She's a magic spider, because she can talk!" And I said that, in the world of this book, even though the animals can talk, it doesn't mean that they're magic -- that animals and people in this book are capable of dying. And Eleanor teared up, and resisted, and then seemed to take it in a little, and they went on reading.
So on Saturday morning, when Charlotte died, we were at least somewhat prepared. Eleanor cried. I cried. Jeff teared up. Isabel sat on the loveseat making one Barbie doll dance on another one's head, and singing to herself. Eleanor said, "But I love Charlotte! She's one of my favorite characters!" and we all hugged, and sniffled, and wiped our eyes, and after a couple of minutes, Jeff read the last chapter.
It was a good first real death.