“…if I have to go to the ends of the earth to find a trumpet for our young son, I shall find it at last and bring it home to Louis.”
“Well, if I may make a suggestion,” said his wife, “don’t go to the ends of the earth, go to Billings, Montana. It’s nearer.”
Like Stuart Little and, to a much lesser extent, Wilbur the Pig, Louis the Trumpeter Swan has been born with a disability: unlike other Trumpeter Swans, he is mute. This, his mother notes wisely, is not a huge issue in his early years, especially since Louis has certain advantages: he may be mute, but he is also faster and stronger than other swans. As he ages, however, this becomes a problem: without a voice, he can’t communicate.
And so, he and his father turn to other solutions, including The Trumpet of the Swan.
The story actually opens not with Louis, but with Sam, an eleven year old boy with a fascination for nature, and a tendency to end the day by writing brief journal entries that end with a question or other that he ponders as he goes to sleep. I bring this up because one or two of these entries sound, shall we say, suspiciously like authorial intervention—some, sure, are the sorts of things an eleven year old boy would wonder about, and others sound more like things E.B. White would wonder about.
Also, there’s a later poem about the zoo that equally suspiciously sounds like something White wrote for a completely different venue and decided to pop into this book; there’s no particular reason for Sam to write the poem, or leave it on the zookeeper’s desk, but it’s a minor point.
Anyway. While exploring, Sam encounters two Trumpeter Swans guarding their nest, and is fortunate enough to watch the little eggs hatch. It turns out to be a fortunate encounter for Louis, as well, since Louis now has a human contact he can ask for help. Which he does shortly after realizing that he’s mute, and has no way to communicate with his fellow swans.
Given this, how exactly Louis manages to say, without talking, “I need to learn how to read and write, and also, I need a little slate with chalk,” to Sam is, shall we say, unclear. On page 56 of my edition, Sam figures out that Louis is mute, and by page 57, he is taking the swan to school, explaining that Louis wants to learn how to read and write. I’m also just slightly suspicious that Mrs. Hammerbotham managed to correctly guess Louis’ name on the fourth try, but we’ll handwave that some sort of swan magic is involved.
Anyway, as a result of all this, Louis does learn to read and write—and the book also gives us a few light hearted math lessons suggesting that E.B. White had serious concerns about how math is taught in school: the students all object to the word problems they are given for completely practical reasons, and the math teachers, surprisingly, agree.
Unfortunately, Louis’ new skill only allows him to talk to humans. It doesn’t allow him to talk to swans.
May I just digress for a moment and say that I have no idea how intentional this was, but from a disability standpoint, I love this, as an acknowledgement that not all medical aids will help under all circumstances or help all problems, and that in some cases, disabled users will need to work with one tool/aid in one situation, and another tool/aid in a second situation, depending, with no “one size fits all situation.” I also loved the acknowledgement that this is not an “instant cure,” and that Louis has to learn to use his assistive devices. Ok, back to the story.
Anyway, Louis’ father—who, I realized, never does get a name in this book—sees Louis pining for the lovely young swan Serena, and decides he can only do one thing for his son: steal a trumpet. The trumpet does allow Louis to finally sing with swans. But, since the trumpet was stolen, it also gives Louis—and to a lesser extent his father—a major guilt trip.
Most of the rest of the book involves Louis earning enough money to pay for a trumpet by taking various human jobs—working at a Boy Scout camp, a Boston boat ride, a Philadelphia nightclub, and a zoo. On a sidenote, like thanks so much, E.B. White, for giving my little child self the hope that if I ever got back to Boston I would get to see a swan playing a trumpet. I mean no disrespect to Boston but TOTAL DISAPPOINTMENT THERE. Moving on.
This section also has a great, underrated moment when Louis saves the life of one Applegate Skinner, a small boy who hates birds, and who nearly drowns after he takes a canoe out onto the lake without authorization, largely because the other boys at the camp have been teasing him. The great moment comes at the end of this, when instead of a Teachable Moment about teasing, canoes, or learning to love your enemies, Applegate firmly announces that he is sick and still doesn’t like birds. Not everyone is grateful about getting rescued. And it’s not that great for Louis, either—sure, he gets a medal, but as Louis notes, that means he’s now carrying a slate, a pencil, a trumpet AND a medal around his neck, which is a lot for one swan.
But the most interesting part of this section is the zoo, and not just because of the contrived plot line that leads to Serena, the love of Louis’ life, crash landing in it. This is where the poem pops up, praising the zoo, and even though I just said that the poem seemed to be put there mostly because White needed some place to put it, on second thought, it does seem to have a purpose here, in that the zoo is really odd place. Louis is sleeping there, performing there—
And yet the zoo keeps swans in captivity, clipping their wings to keep them from escaping.
This leads to a genuine moment of suspense—and Louis desperately needing Sam’s help—when the zoo, not unreasonably from its point of view, wants to clip Serena’s wings, even while agreeing that Louis is different—because Louis can read and write.
On the one hand, this is a very positive message for literacy, something I’d expect from a writer for The New Yorker. On the other hand, White was well aware that literacy tests had been used in certain sections of the United States for decades to determine voter eligibility and citizenship issues. Also, this is all happening within a narrative that assures us that yes, swans can think and reason and even read and write like humans. Louis’ father has an even more extensive vocabulary than Louis does. And all four swans—Louis, his parents, and Serena—demonstrate a fairly high ethical standard. Louis, as noted, rescues the kid who hates him; Louis’ father injures himself trying to repay the money owed to the store.
To free Serena and keep her wings from being clipped, Louis agrees to donate a couple of his children to the zoo every few years—knowing that their wings will be clipped, and they can never fly to Montana.
And if the swans weren’t, as noted, actually talking to the humans—in fact, Louis finds it easier to communicate with humans than swans, even with his trumpet—this might well be ok. As it is, though, the narrative is sending sentient creatures, innocent sentient creatures, to what is for all intents and purposes a jail, even if a jail that will protect them and feed them.
Thus the cheery zoo poem.
Which is not to say that this isn’t a good book. It is by far the most relaxed and cheerful of all of White’s three children’s books. (It helps that no one dies.) It has several laugh out loud moments, including Louis’ baffled attempt to overnight at the Ritz, sharp observations, and White’s usual lucid and beautiful prose. And for the record, I love zoos. I just wish I hadn’t ended it thinking of the clipped wings on those little baby swans, and wondering how those swans felt, watching their parents fly off to Montana, to hear the clear sound of a trumpet playing in the dusk.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.