Overcoming Weakness: The Trumpet of the Swan

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.

trumpet of the swan cover

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?


34 thoughts on “Overcoming Weakness: The Trumpet of the Swan

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  1. Hope things go ok with Daphne – is this book aimed at an appropriate age that you can read it to/with her? It might be a nice analogy book for her to take with her as she grows up.

    1. She isn’t old enough yet, but I certainly plan on rereading it with her when she’s a little bit older. I do think it would be a great book for her and any child struggling with something similar.

  2. It’s amazing how much wisdom can be found in children’s books. Funny, I was just thinking this morning about how difficulties are important, as much as we want to protect our children from them. It was just a small incident – our schools had a late opening because of the unusually cold weather, and I let my son and his friend convince me to drive them instead of wait for the school bus. I was thinking that when I grew up in the northeast, I was waiting for the bus in frigid temperatures every day during the long winters!

    Anyway, Daphne will grow up strong and confident and humble because she had these early struggles, and because she’ll learn to appreciate what many of us take for granted.

    Hmm…I guess my ‘weakness’ was that my family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, and so I’d learned to depend on myself, juggle school and work, etc.

    1. Oh, kids these days! We used to walk to school uphill both ways… Ha, just kidding. But I remember standing in line for the bus when the temperature was below zero and my nostrils freezing shut. I don’t think my mom ever drove us, but what a nice mom you are! And I agree that Daphne will definitely be better for her struggles, just like all of us. Sometimes I think about what my life would be like without this or that previous tragedy or event, but I realize that I wouldn’t be the same person without those experiences.

  3. It just goes to show us that children’s books aren’t just for children! Lovely that you could relate so well to the story. I’m sure your daughter will enjoy seeing some of her own challenges reflected so beautifully in a book.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I missed all of E. B. White as a child, except the Charlotte’s Web movie, so I’m glad to have the chance to read it with my daughters now.

  4. I haven’t read this one since I was little — thank you for the lovely reminder! E.B. White must have been a gentle, kind soul. His writing is so wonderful.

    I’m so glad Daphne is doing well! (Great name, too!)

    As for weaknesses, good lord, I have so many that I don’t know where to start. I suppose learning to ask for help has been an accomplishment.

    1. I love your sentence about so many weaknesses that you don’t know where to start. Me either! I guess that’s part of being human. And yes, E. B. White = AWESOME!

  5. I vaguely remember reading this when I was a kid. Thanks for bringing back fond memories of this book! I do remember that it was among my favorites, and that I thought of it in conjunction with “The Fledgling,” another human/bird story.

  6. Emily, great summary and I am glad Daphne has overcome (and is overcoming) her obstacles. Your post and mine go hand-in-hand today. I summarized Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” today. The theme is how perceived underdogs have overcome and succeeded. There is a chapter on several successful people who have overcome dyslexia, e.g. by making up for it with heightened other skills, plus a keen awareness of what they are up against. All the best, BTG

    1. That sounds fascinating. I will check your post out. I’m reading one by Andrew Solomon now called Far from the Tree about different disabilities and struggles that children have that may make it hard for their parents to relate, like Autism, dwarfism, being gay, being deaf, etc. It seems like it could be part of the conversation with Gladwell.

      1. Emily, “Far from the Tree” sounds like a book I would enjoy and learn from. As I have mentioned before, one of my saddest moments was overhearing a young, lesbian tell another that her parents disowned her and won’t speak to her at all. The best thing we can do as parents is love our children and value them imperfections and all. Thanks for your comment on my post. BTG

        1. Exactly! I can’t believe parents would disown children for that or for rejecting religion or for any other reason, but I’ve seen it time and time again. So sad.

  7. Thank you for sharing this review. It’s wonderful that Daphne is improving and learning to ask questions. As for my journey, I’m still overcoming my fear of being in the public eye and being seen. My blog is helping me to appreciate my voice without so much second guessing. :). http://www.honeylemontea.com

    1. Best of luck with your blog and with finding your voice. I think that is a great metaphor for all of us in figuring out how to write or how to stand up for what we think and believe.

  8. It sounds like an awesome story. Not just for those that have difficulties to face, but to teach your children that not everyone is the same and that somethings that come easy to them, like talking, may not come easy to everyone. It teaches them to be thankful. I believe that is a big aspect that is needed to be taught to our children today.

  9. So, your youngest daughter’s name is Daphne. What a beautiful name! I know the story of Daphne, and for a second guessed that her incomplete communicate might have come from the origin of the name. You see Daphne is a female nymph associated with water. She must arise from the water to express her own thought to people. So, first of all she needs to see the outer world, secondly she must accustom to listen, finally she can express herself in words of people not nymph.
    It was just an useless fancy. But I surprized to notice that the book says same thing as my own idea. Anyway I am happy for the result and I guess you had worried a lot of her situation. That is a mother who always worries something about her children.

    1. Yes, mothers do worry! And what a beautiful story about Daphne. Thank you for sharing it with me. It certainly does give a profound meaning to my daughter’s name and her situation.

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