Friday, August 3, 2012

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White ; pictures by Edward Fascino (1970)

I don't know what my 10 year old initial reaction to The Trumpet of the Swan was. I  know I read it at least once - I knew the swan played the trumpet because he had no voice, and he knew he was part of some swan boat parade, although I think I thought it was New York City (doesn't everything urban in children's literature take place in Central Park or a brownstone or whatever in NYC?).  I probably read it more than once.  I think I knew even then that the pictures weren't by Garth Williams but by "someone else" (that someone else being Edward Frascino, who, of course, was better known as a cartoonist for The New Yorker - see Google for more details). 

What do you call a reaction to a book when you re-read it 32 years later?  It can't be an "initial" reaction, because I already had an initial reaction when I was 10  (even if I can't remember it).  I'm sure the Germans have a word for it.

So what do I think of The Trumpet of the Swan now?  The fantasy worlds that E.B. White creates are really odd.  They are definitely in the same vein as The Wind in the Willows or The Jungle Book.  Here is a quick breakdown on animals interacting with humans in various books with which I'm familiar.

The Jungle Book.  Mowgli interacts with both people and animals, and is an interpreter between both worlds.  He speaks Wolf, Tiger, Monkey, Python, Elephant, Kite, etc.  I don't think he spoke Human though, or at least he didn't at first.  We understood what they were saying, but he didn't.

The Wind in the Willows.  Humans and animals exist and interact with one another, sometimes traditionally and other times not. Toad is a member of the British landed class.  He steals a motorcar and goes to a Human Court.  The People's Court (eye roll please) throws him in gaol.  The gaoler's daughter - a person - takes pity on him and devised a cunning plan to spring him out.  She also resists an urge to keep him as a pet.  Toad is both an animal (humans don't keep humans as pets) and at least an honorary human (he's not put in a stewpot or poisoned, for example).  Toad is really the only character in the book that purposely (or otherwise) interacts with Humans.  Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, etc. do their very best to avoid them on several occasions as something Other. 

Mary Poppins.  Travers is really clear - only babies and Mary Poppins can understand the speech of Animals.  Plus the wind and sunbeams.

The Hundred Acre WoodI don't think this counts because Pooh and company aren't really animals.

Narnia.  C.S. Lewis creates a hodgepodge world of fantasy and mythology and folklore all crammed together that's not always consistent; the rules change a bit from book to book.  But there are some rules about Talking Animals.  They were created by Aslan, they are apparently allowed to eat other animals that don't talk, it's a sin to eat Talking Animals, and they share some traits with their non-talking brethren but also are completely different (Talking Horses, for example, have to give you permission to ride).  They interact freely with everyone.

Tolkien's Middle EarthEagles can communicate with people.  Bears not so much (Beorn doesn't really count).  The thrush in The Hobbit  can obviously understand the speech of Hobbits and Dwarves, but not speak back to them; Ravens, on the other hand, can communicate directly.  At one point a fox talks to himself, but not to anyone else.   Radigast can understand the language of birds. Spiders can speak. Dragons too.

101 Dalmations.  Animals talk to one another, and although desperate to talk to Humans, can't get Humans to understand.  Except Tommy, who is special.  It's clear we as the reader are privy to this special world that other clodhopping are not.

Stuart Little.  Stuart both is and isn't a mouse that talks.  He looks like a mouse, but that's where the similarities really end.  Margalo the bird can speak to at least Stuart, who can understand her; Snowbell the cat can as well. It's unclear whether Snowbell and Margalo can speak to and be understood by other humans, but I get the impression that they cannot.  A pigeon does write a note, apparently in English. 

Charlotte's Web.  Only Fern among all others can hear what the animals in the barn yard are talking about, and when she admits it, she gets drug off to a doctor (in my head she gets taken to a psychiatrist - was that true?) who says not to worry about her.  Maybe it was her family doctor.  So her family doesn't believe she can hear the animals talk (I don't think they ever freely communicate; she's an observer only).  But when the words start appearing in the spider's web, they don't go to Fern and ask her what the hell is going on?  Since she actually admitted that she eavesdropped on the barn yard, you'd think they'd run to her first. Seems a little fucked up that they didn't.  Fern was right all along, mofos - the animals do talk!

The Trumpet of the Swan.  Animals - or at least swans - talk to one another.  Louis, who is mute - Dumb to use his father's term -  learns to communicate with his Swan People via a trumpet.  He also learns to write in English. So he can communicate with Humans.  Who don't seem to find this unusual at all.  Perhaps that is the fantasy aspect of the book - it's more interesting to Humans that the swan plays the trumpet than that he can learn to write in English.  Unlike Fern, Sam Beaver observes the swans without being able to understand them until Louis learns to write.  (The power of the written word!).  Louis is the bridge between the Swan World and the Human World - but all the humans seem to care about is that he's the next Louis Armstrong.  Which seems to be some sort of statement on how stupid Humanity can be sometimes, missing the forest for the trees.  You'd think once one swan learned to write and play the trumpet,  Humans would be interested in teaching other Swans to write and play the trumpet too.  And since this is a story that takes place in America, make some money off it.  Except part of the story takes place in Canada, so maybe that cancels out that part.

So my reread reaction to The Trumpet of the Swan?  It's  an odd book, a bit dragging in places.  All three White books are a bit episodic; something happens, then something happens, and then something happens, and then someone dies. (okay, no one dies in Stuart Little, but they might of well have; no one dies in The Trumpet of the Swan either).  There is an overarching theme in Trumpet of overcoming a handicap.  Various humans and swans in the book are kind, compassionate and helpful.  Louis also relies on his wits, inner strength, and ingenuity to overcome his handicap as well. That's a good theme for an okay book.


It's odd for such a beloved book.  I wonder if the adoration for Charlotte's Web bleeds over into admiration for Trumpet and Stuart Little.  They in no way way equal the mastery of Charlotte's Web (which isn't perfect but is still beautifully written and carefully constructed).  Trumpet is overarchingly the story of overcoming a handicap.  Louis the "dumb" swan is both helped by the kindess and compassion of others (both Human and Swan) but also through his own pluck, ingenuity, creativity, and strength.  Overcoming adversity is a great theme for any kind of book.  The writing is constructed carefully as well - who would expect anything less from E. B. White?  But not everything always makes sense, and it certainly drags in some parts.  It's also a bit episodic, not always with a clear line between episodes.  Still, Sam Beaver is a really likable character, as is Louis the swan (although what exactly is attractive about Serena I'll never understand).  Mother Swan and Cob are my favorite part of the story - I loved their interactions, which were sweet and loving and humorous.  I wondered if E.B. White, in writing about this couple, was gently mocking his own marriage? 

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