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  • Sara St. Antoine

Dispatch #5: About a Girl

Charlotte’s Web is, to my mind, one of the greatest books in all of children’s literature. The deceptively simple prose transfixes:

“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.”

A realistic family drama opens out into a wondrous depiction of the hidden lives of a barn full of animals. And what lives they are! Vulnerable Wilbur. Self-serving Templeton. Bossy goose. And of course, wise and doting Charlotte the spider. These charismatic and talkative animals are the obvious stars of White's story. But Fern, the young girl whose determination saves Wilbur from the ax in the first place, plays an essential role, too. She is our stand-in as she sits quietly and watches the animals in their daily dramas and debates. She has the secret power so many readers have always dreamed of: she can understand what the animals are saying! It could be argued that what makes this story truly magical is that Fern's presence makes it seem perfectly real.

Charlotte’s Web wowed me as a young reader, inspiring fantasies of a farm life and a book-writing future, too. But I did take issue with one part of the book that trips me up to this day. For the young reader who adores everything about Fern’s relationship with Wilbur and the barn animals, the ending of Charlotte’s Web is pure heartbreak. And not for the reason most people assume.

Here we are at the County Fair and the impossible has happened: with the help of Templeton and Charlotte, Wilbur has won a blue ribbon and been spared a bacon bits future. Triumph! Hooray! What could please Fern more? Well, according to E.B. White, a boy could. Fern is no longer a little girl who loves pigs; she’s a soon-to-be-big girl whose attention is now turned to Henry, the boy with whom she shares rides on the Ferris wheel. In fact, she’s so smitten with Henry that she skips off to join him for another ride instead of seeing Wilbur receive his award! The message seemed to be that animals were only a temporary infatuation for girls (or all kids), soon to be replaced by potential human mates. E.B. White may have considered Fern’s shift inevitable, but to my young mind it made her seem shallow, fickle. I wasn't ready to believe that her relationship with Wilbur was really that superficial.

Charlotte’s Web's famously sad ending is mitigated by the cheerful new bonds Wilbur forms with a new crop of baby spiders. Life in the barn continues apace. But for at least one reader, there was a secondary mourning for the presence of Fern at the end of this otherwise perfect barnyard story.

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