2012-05-02 / Columnists

Pets Pets Pets

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” You may recognize this question as the first line of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

“Some Book!” In a Publisher’s Weekly poll, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year) was the undisputed #1 choice of librarians, teachers, publishers and authors. The poignant tale of an articulate spider who tricks silly humans to save the life of her porcine pal still delights readers of all ages. Some 200,000 copies are sold every year, and the novel has been translated into 35 languages.

Besides eloquent barnyard chatter, this 184-page masterpiece weaves together a web of so many themes including friendship, loyalty, the magic of childhood, mortality within the cycle of life, the human condition and the fact that there are redeeming qualities in everyone, even Templeton the rat, the only character who can carry Charlotte’s egg sac to safety, though he does so for selfish reasons. Wilbur the pig protagonist promises Templeton that he will let him eat first at the trough for the rest of their lives.

The power of self-fulfilling prophecies abounds and, in this book, carefully selected webby words save Wilbur from slaughter. “If I can fool a bug,” thought Charlotte, “I can surely fool a man. People aren’t as smart as bugs.” Only gullible humans embrace everything they see in print. That’s why the Enquirer remains so successful. Wilbur becomes “Some pig!,” “Radiant” and “Terrific” because the townsfolk fall for the clever spider’s scheme and believe the messages in Charlotte’s web; yet, more so, because Charlotte inspires Wilbur to believe in himself.

Some Writer!” Elwyn Brooks White (1899 –1985), better known as E. B. White, was an influential American essayist, long-time contributor to The New Yorker magazine and co-author of the widely-used English language guide, The Elements of Style, besides being famous for childrens’ books. His other kids’ classics are Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan.

White’s facination with nature began early. According to a 6/3/11 article in Smithsonian magazine, White was the youngest of seven siblings, frail and painfully shy. He was always more comfortable in the barn and woods of his boyhood home, in the company of farm animals and all sorts of critters.

White once wrote of himself, “This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.”

When his wife (a fiction editor for The New Yorker) announced she was pregnant with their first child, White was struck speechless, so he wrote a letter to her “from” their pet dog Daisy, describing the excitement and anxiety of the dog’s owner. His voice often hid behind animals. That voice has a hypnotic, Zen rhythm, especially in Charlotte’s Web.

Two animal encounters may have been White’s inspiration for Charlotte’s Web. In 1947, he wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly about staying up several nights caring for an ailing pig that he had originally planned to butcher. “[The pig’s] suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness,” White wrote. Had the pig survived, it would have been doubtful whether White could have carried out Plan A. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig,” White wrote in the essay.

In 1949, White walked into his barn in Maine and noticed a spider making an elaborate web that glistened with dew. Later he spied an egg sac, but no spider. When he had to return to his magazine job in NYC, he couldn’t abandon the spider’s children so he took a razor blade, cut the sac out of the web and put it in a candy box with some air holes. He left the box on his bedroom bureau. Weeks later he was delighted to discover hundreds of spiderlings exiting the box. He allowed them to make tiny webs from his hair brush to the mirror until the cleaning lady complained.

Some Spider!” The dramatic irony of Charlotte’s Web is that the miraculous one is the unobtrusive spider rather than the prize piglet. This point is never lost on children. I was first mesmerized by the book when my second-grade teacher began reading it to us on the first day of school. We would come from the playground, put our heads on our desks and soak up the language that sailed before us, like the barn rope swing, to a magical meditation we never wanted to end.

When I became a teacher, I read the book each year to my own second graders. Charlotte’s vocabulary remains top shelf. “Salutations” instead of “hello;” her balloonist arachnid cousin is an “aeronaut,” to name a few choice words.

Year after year we savored every word, but I must confess I would sob when I read the next to the last chapter aloud, so it became tradition that I’d temporarily trade classes. My colleague would read the words that I could never blubber out as Wilbur carried her egg sac in his mouth, and Charlotte bid him adieu on page 171:

““Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died….Nobody, of the hundreds of people who visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. Nobody was with her when she died.”

I beg to differ with the wonderful Mr. White. Every person who has ever cherished his beautiful prose has learned a lasting lesson about true friendship. Each reader has been with Charlotte, his heroic spider, when she died.

Pets for Adoption: Our poster pets represent two shelters. Now at Last Hope Dog Center, 3300 Beltagh Ave. in Wantagh (631-946-9528), “Abby,” a two-year-old Shepherd/ Aussie mix hails from West Virginia where she spent most of her life in an outdoor kennel before her owner moved without her. Abby loves to catch tennis balls and Frisbees on a fly and a bounce. She is very bright and, with training, would be a great dog for someone who would like to participate in fly ball, obedience, rally or agility.

More Last Hope dogs: “Bounce” eight-month-old Shepherd/Collie pup; “Haven” female Beagle; “Coco”- male Beagle/Chesapeake Retriever; “Ronnie” handsome Foxhound; “Boo” fluffy Shepherd mix; “Louie” Puggle.

“Freddy” #2-19 is a handsome longhaired tuxedo cat who has been at Babylon Town Shelter, 51 Lamar St. in West Babylon (631-643-9270) since January. He is a lovable lug in the lobby.

More Babylon Shelter pets: “Cody” #2-57 orange tabby; “Valentino” #12-200 Hound mix; “Blondie” #12-21 Pit/Lab caught in a humane trap in St. Charles Cemetery in Jan. Blondie loves to give kisses.

Don’t forget the plant sale/flea market at Last Hope in Wantagh- Sat. 5/5 from 10-2 p.m. Great for Mother’s Day gifts.

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