Book Of A Lifetime: Charlotte's Web, By EB White

Helen Humphreys
Friday 08 July 2011 00:00
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I was a child who loved reading. I was crazy for the world of books, a world I felt was much more exciting than the one I actually lived in. To have some of the thrill of story, I would try and put myself in the way of adventure in my "real" life. Usually this involved riding my bike around the neighbourhood, or squelching through the pond opposite my house. For a long stretch of days one summer, I stood at the window of my bedroom, notebook in hand, looking for suspicious people to document. I made my little brother stand with me, as my assistant. His job was to look up the street while I looked down.

Around this time, I read 'Charlotte's Web' by EB White. This whimsical story of the friendship between Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider moved me like nothing else had moved me before. When that spider died, I was inconsolable. My mother, rather nonplussed at the amount of sobbing I was doing over a children's book, tried to calm me by pointing out that Charlotte's babies meant there were lots of spiders at the end of the story. But of course these other spiders didn't matter because I didn't know them. I didn't care about them.

Since we lived in the suburbs, there were never any people walking along our street, suspicious or otherwise. Everyone drove everywhere. My brother quit being my surveillance assistant, saying simply that it was really boring. I realised then that it might be better to make up the adventures, rather than wait for them. And my devastating response to 'Charlotte's Web' made me think too that if I controlled a story, I would never have to feel that sad again.

This is how I became a writer. The story of 'Charlotte's Web' is one of friendship. To save Wilbur's life, Charlotte spins words into her web. The novelty of this feat impresses the humans and spares the young pig from being butchered. But the spinning of the words takes all of the spider's strength and energy, and at the end of the story, she dies.

It is a book about loyalty, and a book about living life to the fullest. Charlotte, trying to reassure Wilbur that the world will go on without her, says, "The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur – this lovely world, these precious days".

But, ultimately, 'Charlotte's Web' is a book about loss, about the place that sadness and death occupy in a life, about how each being on this earth is irreplaceable. When my little brother died, just over a year ago, and I was inconsolable once again, I remembered the lesson of that childhood book, and I was grateful to have learned it.

Helen Humphreys's novel 'The Reinvention of Love' is published by Serpent's Tail

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