Friday, November 21, 2014

When I was seven or eight years old, my paternal grandmother gave me a boxed set of the works of E.B. White. I read Charlotte's Web first, because I had seen the animated movie. I read Stuart Little next, because my grandmother liked it so much and said it reminded her of Tom Thumb. I read The Trumpet of the Swan last, because no one said anything about it and I assumed it wasn't very good. I was maybe 10 when I finally read it.

I fell in love with it, much more so than the other books.

The story is about Sam, an eight-year-old Native American boy in Canada who camps near a lake. He sees a trumpeter swan and its mate caring for their clutch of six young cygnets. While most of the cygnets beep at Sam, one cannot speak. He merely pulls on Sam's shoelaces. Sam realizes this swan is mute. As a mute trumpeter, the swan will be forever alone in life. Over the next few years, Sam returns to the lake, and visits the mute swan. Sam teaches the swan to read, using a small chalkboard and some chalk. Sam names the swan Louis, and Louis expresses his loneliness. Sam tells Louis that he wishes Louis knew how to play the trumpet, as then he could make the sounds he needed. Louis tells his father about the trumpet. While the swan family is over-wintering at Red Rocks Lake, Montana, Louis' dad flies to Billings, breaks through the window of a music store, and steals a trumpet. Louis learns to play the trumpet, and Sam slits the webbing in one of Louis' feet so he can play better. Louis has many adventures, becoming famous for his trumpet playing, performing in a club in New York City, and joining a zoo.

Louis finally finds a mate, and together they return to Canada. When Sam is about 20 years old, he is again camping in Canada and hears Louis playing taps to his children. He writes in his journal:
Tonight I heard Louis's horn. My father heard it, too. The wind was right, and I could hear the notes of taps, just as darkness fell. There is nothing in all the world I like better than the trumpet of the swan.
The ending of that book always made me cry.

John Updike thought The Trumpet of the Swan the best of White's novels. "The Trumpet of the Swan Swan has superior qualities of its own; it is the most spacious and serene of the three, the one most imbued with the author's sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature".

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