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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A story that speaks quietly, across scary times

In a time so frightening for so many reasons, I bought the one book I hadn’t read by a writer I’ve loved, as so many have. He wrote this story at another time of fear and upheaval and anger, righteous and otherwise. What he wrote doesn’t address any of those troubles. Or maybe, in the writer’s own way, it does.

Last week I read E.B. White’s third and final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan.

It was 1969, and White was 69, when he submitted his manuscript for Trumpet. He and his wife Katherine were both in poor health, especially Katherine, and his country was in turmoil, over war, civil rights and a bitter generational clash. He’d been worried about providing for Katherine, though Charlotte’s Web of 1952 was still a bestseller. Had it not been for his worries, according to Scott Elledge’s fine biography, White might have held onto the new book longer and rewritten it more, as he had the previous two. But he went ahead; and it came out in 1970, the year we got Nixon.

Here’s what I found. Trumpet is not a wonderwork, like Charlotte, and it won’t be a treasured personal favorite, like Stuart Little ... but it’s interesting. I suspect that White, as he worked, may have had in his mind what he wanted to leave us. He put together a story whose characters — Louis the voiceless trumpeter swan, his practical mother and bloviating father, and Sam the boy who loves wild places and all creatures— are not, to me at least, terribly convincing. White's third novel again lightheartedly dispenses with the gap between what an animal can do and what it might do, if it were more like us: Louis compensates for his muteness by learning to write on a chalkboard and to play the trumpet, the latter so well that he has a short, lucrative musician’s career.

But really, these characters and the story itself feel like overlays on what this quiet, thoughtful writer was sharing with us, one last time: his attentive, abiding love of nature and its creatures, and of music, which he hadn’t written much about before. Much as Stuart ends with exploring for its own sake and backyards worth finding out about, Trumpet concludes with this:

“Darkness settled on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”

We are all still creatures of this lovely earth. Whatever happens, we can still hear its music, and its light returns again each morning. I like thinking about that. It’s a gift.

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