A Book Is a Sneeze

Room with a View

Charlotte's Web, Susan Hand Shetterly
PEXELS | Wendy van Zyl
By Susan Hand Shetterly
Aweek ago, I drove through North Brooklin, past the farmhouse that was E.B. White’s home, and I decided that in this season of hope, I will reread the book about Wilbur, the pig, Fern, the girl, and Charlotte, the spider. I will take up their story once more because it never fails to offer a strong dose of what’s decent and what’s true — and right now we seem to be in need of both.

I drove past the barn where I like to imagine Fern and her brother, Avery, launching themselves out the open door on the rope swing, and where I like to imagine Wilbur living below in the warm manure pile. The force of the story of Charlotte’s Web came back to me — its celebration of life in a barn, its wry humor, its moments of grief and courage, the simplicity of the writing that makes the whole thing ring sharp as a brass bell.

When I taught writing workshops, I would often assign this book. It is very close to a perfect book, if there is such a thing, and we’d get to work figuring out some of the elements that make it so. Death is steeped into its pages, as is life — immediate, colorful and witty, playing itself out against that darker background. The counterpoint between the two gives White a chance to write some of his most moving prose about the beauty and joy of being alive. He explores the delicacies and strengths of a friendship and presents a sketch of a writer’s travail as Charlotte begins her task of saving Wilbur’s life by writing “Some Pig” in her web.

In 1952, Charlotte’s Web came into the world, and it’s been with us ever since.

I read the book to my daughter when she was 5. As we neared the end, I explained that although we were coming to a hard part, there would be a happy place soon after. I had my arm around her and began the page about Charlotte dying and Wilbur demanding that Templeton cut down her egg sack so that he can carry it back to the barn in his mouth. Suddenly my voiced wobbled and tears spurted out of my eyes as my startled daughter watched and waited. What was this?

Other mothers have told me similar stories. We prepare our kids because we love them and don’t want them hurt, and then briefly, before we can collect ourselves, we fall to pieces. It’s not that White planned to make us weep. Well, maybe he did. Maybe he was weeping himself. But I think rather it’s that he trusted us, his readers, with such tenderness. It’s that gift of trust that makes us weep.

White wasn’t fond of questions about how he came to write the book. They seemed beside the point to him and a bit nosey. In a letter to his publisher’s publicity department, he wrote about watching spiders: “At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east windows, illuminates their embroidery . . . I haven’t told you why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.”

He’s right. It starts as a tickle you can’t get rid of. It builds up pressure and you feel that pressure growing until you can’t think of anything else. And then — at last — a vigorous, satisfying “ACHOO!” In 1952, Charlotte’s Web came into the world, and it’s been with us ever since.

Some Sneeze.