What a charming little book.
The Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little movies were big hits with me when I was a kid (in fact, that 1999 Stuart Little movie kickstarted a crush on Hugh Laurie that endures to this day), and so naturally obsessive little completionist dsbs42 needed to read the books those movies were based on. I loved Charlotte’s Web in particular. And at some point many years later, I decided to revisit them as an adult and bought the E. B. White set, whereupon I discovered that he’d written a third popular children’s book as well. Not having seen the movie for this one (although apparently one does exist), it didn’t rank highly on the To Read list, languishing in my bookcase with a sad little half-a-tissue resting between the first pages from when I first intended to start reading it.
I’ve fallen a bit behind on my reading, so now seemed like the perfect time to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did.
The Trumpet of the Swan is about a boy from Montana named Sam Beaver and a young trumpeter swan named Louis, who is born without a voice. Sam, who is camping in Canada with his father one spring, stumbles upon a family of swans during one of his nature walks. But while Louis’s brothers and sisters and mother and father happily communicate by honking “ko-hoh”, Louis can only listen. At first, Louis tries to solve this problem by going to school with Sam in order to learn to read and write, but since the other animals have not been thusly educated, this is less helpful than hoped. So Louis’s father decides to steal a trumpet for his son, and what follows is a sweet, silly, quirky little story of family, love, music, nature, and financial stress.
There are some confusing moral issues within the internal world of the book itself.* For example (slight spoilers ahead), Louis can’t bear the thought of himself or his wife Serena having their wings clipped by the Philadelphia Zoo, but he later makes a deal to donate one of his cygnets (or, you know, children) to the Zoo if they ever need one. We are not given any reason why the child would find this fate any less objectionable than Louis. Louis and Serena have real names, but Louis’s mother calls herself Cygnus Buccinator (the Latin name for trumpeter swans), and his father is only referred to as “the cob”. The love story between Louis and Serena is pretty iffy if you think about it for more than two seconds (he loves her because she’s pretty; she completely ignores him when they first know each other because he can’t speak, but is immediately enchanted once he has a trumpet and some money). A bird is shot, an action which is determined perfectly fine because a storekeeper was worried he might be stealing something (he was not, but the storekeeper thought he was, so everyone is happy to move on).
But honestly, this book is not based in our reality, and there’s no need for all children’s books to have prescriptive little mandates or life lessons. It’s just a funny little tale where odd things happen, and it might make you think about the wonders of nature for a little bit. Like all the best novels for younger children, this would be excellent fun to read out loud, particularly Louis’s father’s pompous but well meaning speeches. I hope very much that I get to read this to my nieces one day.
Some cool little things from the internets:
- Louis’s journey on Google Maps
- Songs mentioned in The Trumpet of the Swan
- The sound of the trumpeter swan
* And on the outside world as well. One thing I want to note is that this book was written in 1970, and features a few moments of cringe. Sam Beaver, apparently, both looks and moves “like an Indian.” The director of Camp Kookookoos tells his campers that the camp name, the “Indian name for the Great Horned Owl” was chosen because it was a “kooky” and “peculiar”. It’s not surprising, for a book of its time, and in context it doesn’t seem to be meant pejoratively, but it is obviously outdated and insensitive, and yanked me right out of the timeless feel of the story.