And so we began the story of little Fern saving the runt Wilbur from certain death. Right away, Ben enjoyed the talking animals and was quite interested in how Wilbur would be saved from death, why the farmers wanted to kill him, and why they planned to eat him later in the year. These weren't all questions I was prepared to answer - I had forgotten just how much death was truly part of this story. But, we soldiered on.
Despite the focus on Wilbur and Charlotte and Fern's constant presence on a stool observing their lives, Ben was most interested in Avery, Fern's older brother, and Templeton, the rat. Ben really enjoyed Avery's misbehavior, the fact that he keeps frogs in his pocket, and his attempt to capture Charlotte for his collection. Ben had many questions about Templeton's collection of garbage, and truly enjoyed the scene involved Templeton's rotten egg. I liked seeing all the fun Ben was having with the various characters, even though his questions about what was going on in the book sometimes took more time to answer than the time we actually spent reading the book on a given night.
And then we neared the end. I started to feel myself fearing Charlotte's death - wondering how Ben would react and whether he would be upset by it all. I knew it was coming and I started to brace myself. What I did not remember was that Wilbur first had to be saved and win his special prize at the county fair. I was more than a little annoyed to find out that after all the time, and having bottle-fed Wilbur since birth, that Fern could not be bothered to attend the prize ceremony - because she was off riding the ferris wheel with a boy. It was so disappointing. I know Fern's actions were just another example of how the world moves on and people change and can't always stick around when you need them to, but it just seemed so sad that she dropped in a second someone she had loved for years. And for a boy. Of course, I reminded myself that this book was written in 1952, but the scene has really stuck with me and overshadowed everything else about this book - and made me doubt that I will introduce my girls to the story when they get older. They can wait until they have to read it in elementary school - and are better equipped to discuss and deal with my tirades against this sterotypical depiction of young girls in literature.
Then Charlotte died. Like I said, I knew it was coming - but I still cried. A genuine tear slid down my cheek. Ben noticed and we had the following exchange:
- Ben: Mom, why did Charlotte die?
- Me: Because it was her time.
- Ben: That means she won't go back to the farm with Wilbur?
- Me: That's right, but Wilbur brought all her eggs back so her children will be born there.
- Ben: But why are you sad?
- Me: Because Charlotte died and when things die, sometimes we feel sad.
- Ben: But Mom, Charlotte is a spider!
And then I realized with that conversation what should have been obvious from the beginning of trying to explain and deal with death - that all kinds of deaths are different and trying to create analogies among them doesn't always work. There are some nice messages about death in Charlotte's Web for sure - and I am sure they will translate for some kids to the death of a human relative - or perhaps they would be more closely appropriate for the death of a beloved family companion animal. Then it made me think more about dealing with death with children - and how there are so many more complexities involved than simply trying to explain why people die or where people go when they die. There is the death of a parent which is different than the death of a sibling which is different that the death of an uncle or the death of someone after a prolonged illness or a sudden accident. Which is all to say that there can't be one universal way of introducing this topic to your child or getting them to understand it. But, also to say that I guess we just keep talking about it - in a way that is comforting but hopefully not obsessive.
So, in the end, while I was angry with Fern for ditching Wilbur in his finest hour, I still think there was so much value in sharing this book with Ben at this time. Not just for the information it gave me about death which will come in handy as our discussions evolve, but because of the fun he had hearing the stories of the animals and Avery over the week it took us to read the book. I suppose that's ultimately what makes a book a classic - something we can fall in love with in the moment, but that also keeps us wondering and thinking for a long time to come.