"The Story of Charlotte's Web" by Michael Sims, Walker and Company, 307 pages, $24
"Where's Papa going with that ax...?" E. B. White tried many opening lines for his boo, "Charlotte's Web," and that is the one he chose. It is uttered by Fern, a farm girl who feared her father was going to end the life of a newly born runt pig.
Fern saved the pig, named him Wilbur, and the book, one of the best-loved children's books of our time, begins. That opening is not as well known as some other literary beginnings, such as Melville's "Call me Ishmael," or Orwell's "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. …" but for us E. B. White fans, it is just about perfect.
The subtitle of Michael Sims' new book is "E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic." It is an account, smoothly told, of White's long love affair with the creatures of the natural world and, especially, spiders. Charlotte, of course, is a spider.
As a boy White was part of a large family living on a farm north of New York City, and he enjoyed watching the animals: geese, pigs, dogs. He had helped piglets to be born, but he knew also that pigs were raised only to be slaughtered and eaten. When a pig died, he wrote, "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham, but the loss of pig … it had suffered in a suffering world." Sims writes of the mature White and his barn in Brooklin, Maine: "Many animals came through this barn … not only cattle, but chickens, pigs, ducks, cats, dogs, sheep, the occasional goat."
White struggled with the relationship between humans and animals, and partly resolved the tension by his writing, in which animals played major and sympathetic roles.
Charlotte, for instance, is a heroine who, as heroines often do in stories of humans, performed nobly and faced death in the end.
This is not a full biography of White, who dropped the E. B. (Elwyn Brooks) when he went off to Cornell and adopted the name Andy as others with the surname White had done over the years to honor the college's founder, Andrew Dickson White. He would be known as Andy for the rest of his life. He was always shy, tried to avoid crowded gatherings, loved his solitariness, and those traits were summed up wonderfully by his stepson, Roger Angell, who said at Andy's funeral, "If Andy White could be with us today, he would not be with us today."
White wrote often about animals; his other favorite book for children, "Stuart Little," was another fantasy, in which the central character is a mouse, born in some sense, to a human couple. And, to this reviewer, the best essay Andy White ever wrote was entitled "Death of a Pig," written, as he wrote, "in penitence and in grief." And he even wrote a poem about spiders, a love poem for his wife, Katherine. It is called "Natural History."
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of his devising;
A thin premeditated rig,
To use in rising.
And all the journey down through space
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
He builds a ladder to the place
From which he started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do,
In spider's web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.
I think I would like any book that took me back to E. B. White, but this book by Michael Sims is special, a delight to read, and a nudge to the reader to find that old copy of "Charlotte's Web" and sit on the deck and begin to read, "Where's Papa going with that ax…?"