A few years ago, I stumbled upon The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims, on someone's blog and promptly got a copy of it. It sat on my TBR shelf until last month, when I decided to read it as part of my Maine reading project for this year.
The Story of Charlotte's Web, is subtitled E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. It did not disappoint. Essentially, the book is a biography of Andy White, and despite the subtitle, his wasn't a particularly eccentric life. From his earliest years, he loved nature and animals and writing, as so it is not exactly note-worthy that he became a writer best known for his novels about animals. He was an introvert and a keen observer of both people and animals and was able to write elegantly about the world he loved.
I really loved reading about his years as a staff writer at The New Yorker--one of my favorite books is James Thurber's The Years With Ross, and it was great fun to revisit the busy magazine office of the 1930s. While still writing for the magazine, White and his wife and son moved from Manhattan to a farm in Brooklin, Maine, and it is here where he wrote his masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, modeling Zukerman's farm on his own. White spent a long time studying spiders before writing the book, and he sent his favorite sources to illustrator Garth Williams, so that he too could get the details in his drawings right.
White was a perfectionist when it came to writing, and rewrote and revised Charlotte's Web for over a year before he finally sent it off into the world. I enjoyed immensely how he crafted the story and worked diligently to find not only the perfect opening but also the perfect ending to his story. The germ of the story was always the relationship between the pig and the spider and it took White awhile to discover that he needed Fern in order to add layers of complexity to his themes of salvation, friendship, and the circle of life.
After reading this marvelous book, of course I had to reread Charlotte's Web. It was a complete joy to reread and is definitely timeless. It is a comfort read. It instills peace and hope.
While I was rereading the book slowly - just a chapter or two a day - my elderly mother fell and broke her hip. While I was finishing the book, I was also supporting my mother as she continued to decline. As you may know, a broken hip is often a death sentence for a person already frail, whose body has already started to fail.
Here is what I shared with friends and family last Sunday:
Saturday morning, in the wee small hours, my beloved Mom passed away. Just one month shy of her 97th birthday, she remained loving and generous, warm and caring to the end.
On Friday, I spent the day with her, singing the Irish songs and ballads she loved, reading poems she loved (and which she recited back to me as I read), holding her hand, and helping her find the courage to leave this world that she loved so much.
I have never known anyone who loved life the way she did and hung on to it with a tenacity that was inspiring. She always had a twinkle in her eye, as if planning some fresh mischief.
She was quick to giggle at herself when she made a mistake. She was eager to try new things--this is a woman who learned to drive when she was in her late 40s. She took cooking classes, learned to quilt, made bread, had a fantastic garden, canned everything she could lay her hands on, grew dinner plate dahlias and gladioli, kept chickens, kept bees, and literally gave away the hand-knit sweater on her back when she saw a homeless woman who looked cold.
She was generous and kind, silly and sometimes self-conscious, but she had a capacity for friendship that knew no bounds.
I am so proud she was my mother and she will forever be my role model.
Love you, Mom - give Dad a hug and a kiss for me!
Charlotte's Web will forever be connected in my mind with my Mom--they had a lot in common, and I am glad I am one of her daughter spiders who remains in the barn to greet the spring.