I could write about every one of E.B. White’s books and never run out of ways to read them again and again. But let’s face it. Charlotte’s Web is the ultimate tin-can-stilts book. Wilbur lifts up Fern, Charlotte lifts up Wilbur, and ultimately each and every one of us is lifted up by a community hell-bent on saving a pig’s life. Well, okay, they don’t all want to save his life just for so. After all, more than one of the farmers has come at the poor pig with an ax, so it isn’t like vegetarianism has suddenly taken them over or anything like that.
What happens is that they all start to get wrapped up in something rather uncommon—something of a miracle. Charlotte—the wonderful, industrious Charlotte is uncommon from the get-go. She takes on in friendship a suffering pig—suffering because he is desperately lonely for a friend, having no idea that he is also on the short-list for the chopping block. When he alienates all of the other farm animals with his whining and distress, it is Charlotte who comes out from the dark corner of the barn to show Wilbur the light.
It is Charlotte who finds Wilbur terrific! radiant! humble! and sets about telling the world. What happens next is something akin to a barn-raising, with each and every person and animal becoming invested in this pig the way a farming community invests in pulling hard on the lying-down side of that barn and yanking it up into a wall.
It is the same gusto Fern displays from page one. In an angsty rage typical of her age group, she saves baby Wilbur from her father’s hand, and right away, her commitment to taking care of that runt, complete with a bottle and pram, gives her purpose and gives her a friend and mostly gives her something to hold onto and pull.
Even Templeton—the most self-involved children’s book character of all time—takes hold of one of those ropes and pulls. And soon, he has a role second to only Charlotte in the saving of Wilbur’s life.
“We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. 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.” Charlotte, to Wilbur in one of many moments I cannot read aloud without choking back sobs in front of my children.
We know—of course we know—that what E.B. White has done here is special. He writes with a respect to his subjects and to his setting that is unparalleled. And with his exquisite touch, he creates an atmosphere—not just of stinky manure piles and clucking, haughty geese, but an atmosphere of friendship and honesty and the cruelties we must face together.
So as I read those lines to my daughter, my heart heavy with both Charlotte’s burdens and with her demise—I realized that what I was teaching my daughter with this story was that as we lift up others, as we pull hard on the ropes, we are lifted up ourselves.
Some pig, indeed.