E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) was not what I expected. I expected a story much like Charlotte’s Web, with talking animals of course, but animals who stayed in their habitats and who perhaps interacted with young humans.
Instead, the book started this way, but then led to a young swan being born without a voice. He finds his voice by taking up trumpeting. He’s a trumpeter swan of course, but he plays the trumpet and ends up traveling all over the United States giving concerts and earning money to pay back the store owner for the trumpet. This swan, aptly named Louis, gains the trumpet when his father crashes into the store and steals it. Because Louis is nothing if not upright, he works to pay for the trumpet by playing it in public.
I was moved by this story, despite its strangeness, because of my youngest daughter, Daphne. She has a voice, but she did not learn how to speak well until after her third birthday in 2013. We spent many days frustrated and upset with each other because she could not communicate. She used to grunt and scream, and I was helpless to know how to respond to her. We had her evaluated, and although her speech delay was not severe, the school district sent a speech therapist to our house for a few months to help her practice and to give us strategies for helping her. She is doing really well now, and although she isn’t perfect at pronunciation, she is understandable now. She also has a way to express herself, which has alleviated the frustration she felt at not being understood and our frustration at not being able to meet all of her needs. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that Daphne now asks me what things are when she does not know the names for them. Her vocabulary is increasing rapidly, and as her fourth birthday approaches soon, I’m proud of all she’s accomplished in the last year because of how hard it was for her to learn to speak.
From my perspective, The Trumpet of the Swan is really about “the moment of triumph for a young swan who had a speech defect and had conquered it” (p. 192). I see this triumph in my own daughter; overcoming any sort of difficulty, disability, or struggle is what this book is about. We can all see ourselves and our struggle for accomplishment in Louis and his adventures of strengthening weakness.
Louis holds jobs at many familiar locations, including at the swan boats in Boston and the zoo and a nightclub in Philadelphia. Along the way, Louis wants to court a female swan named Serena, but swans court through their voices. He must use his artificial voice to woo her. And he has help from a human boy throughout the whole book. Sam Beaver sees Louis and his siblings hatch on a lake in Canada on a trip with his father, and Sam turns out to be a friend to Louis throughout the book. The most gruesome part of this friendship is when Louis asks Sam to slit his webbed feet so he can better play the trumpet. That part made me, and my daughter Olivia, squirm a little with disgust as we read it!
The best theme of the book is the idea of asking questions, especially when we don’t know the answers. This book gives children permission to ask those questions. Sam does this with his wildlife observations. He asks in the beginning, “How does a bird know how to make a nest? Nobody ever taught her” (p. 28). In addition to critical thinking, Sam asks questions about vocabulary. At the end, he writes, “what does ‘crepuscular’ mean?” (p. 251).
One of the funniest characters in the book is Louis’s father, who pontificates at every turn. He cannot stop using his voice, in stark contrast to Louis. But the father swan and mother swan explain that it was his voice that attracted her. The cob boasts of this, and it reminded me of the story of my father’s friends from Argentina. Elsa met her husband, Aaron, as a telephone operator because of his voice. She would answer his calls and moon over how deep and manly his voice was. They finally met, dated, and married. They told us this story when they came to visit last Thanksgiving.
In a funny and unintentional twist, there is a boy who witnesses Louis’s father being shot, when he goes back to the music store to pay for the trumpet after Louis earns enough money. This boy is named Alfred Gore. How did E. B. White know?
Here is the best quote, in my opinion, from the book.
“The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking” (p. 50).
What weaknesses have you learned to overcome?