Regressing Swansong

210 pp., $4.50

E. B. WHITE has a rather strange mind. To a normal eight-year-old, he's just an exceptionally good author. But to someone older, who has never experienced the joy of Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little, he is, as a friend of mine said recently, "very weird." True, spiders don't usually weave slogans such as "Some Pig" into their webs to save pigs from being slaughtered; and human parents don't usually give birth to a son who looks exactly like a mouse. But none of that matters, because they're all very real, endearing characters with real problems-of survival or identity or whatever. So when Charlotte (a spider) dies, even though her babies will be hatched in the pigsty the next spring, of course you cry-even my mother always cries over that passage.

White's third children's book, The Trumpet of the Swan, although filled with prose as great as the first two, is slightly disappointing. At first I thought that the fact that I'm 20 insead of eight had something to do with my let-down. But I reread the other two, and if anything they seemed better than they did 12 years ago.

One great deficiency of Trumpet is its illustrations. The association of Garth Williams' concise, delicate ink drawings with White's prose is too strong to break. Although Edward Frascino's charcoal drawings are often well done, they don't have the emotional impact of, say, Williams' picture of the little girl Fern with the piglet Wilbur in her arms as she feeds him from a baby bottle.

Even going beyond illustrations, there is a bigger let-down: it is a happy book, with a happy ending and few disappointments along the way.

TRUMPET is, in White's words, the story of "a young swan who had a speech defect and conquered it." Louis, a trumpeter swan, is born without a voice. His father-an eloquently verbose swan-promises to help, but still

[Louis] couldn't understand why he had come into the world without a voice. Everyone else seemed to have a voice. Why didn't he? "Fate is cruel," he thought. "Fate is cruel to me." . . . Soon they joined the others, and everyone started water games, and Louis joined in, dipping and splashing and diving and twisting. Louis could splash water farther than any of the others, but he couldn't shout while he was doing it. To be able to shout while you are splashing water is half the fun.

The great problem, however, of not having a voice is that Louis is unable to trumpet to female swans and thus is ignored as a desirable mate.

As in White's other books, the line between human and animal is very faint. Louis befriends a small boy, Sam, who takes the swan to his school in Montana to learn how to read and write. ("If I can teach a bird to write," says Mrs. Hammerbotham, first grade teacher, "it'll be big news all over the Sweet Grass country. I'll get my picture in Life magazine. I'll be famous.")

But writing on a small slate he carries around his neck does Louis no good-when he returns home none of the other swans can read. He falls in love with Serena, a lovely young swan, who ignores him.

In order to save his son's love life, Louis's father sacrifices his honor, stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings, Montana. Before winning Serena, Louis resolves to repay his father's debt by working as a trumpeter. One of his jobs is as a trumpeter playing "Row, Row Your Boat" while swimming in front of the swan boats in the Public Garden in Boston ("Boston, which . . . is famous for its baked beans, its codfish, its tea parties, its Cabots, its Lowells, its Saltonstalls, and its Swan Boats.") He earns fame in Boston, and gets a ten-week engagement at a night club in Philadelphia. By this time, he is a great musician, giving Sunday afternoon classical concerts at the Philadelphia Zoo, where he lives.

Serena comes into the Zoo on a gale one night-blown from Montana to Philly-and falls madly in love with Louis, who wakens her with "Beautiful Dreamer" on his trumpet. They return to Montana to give his father Louis's accumulated earnings (minus expenses) of $4420.78 with which to repay the music store. Louis and Serena live happily ever after, migrating between Canada and Montana with yearly cross-country tours to show the kids where Louis spent his youth, overcoming his speech defect and restoring grandpa's honor. And every year the swanboatmen treats the parent swans to a night at the Ritz Hotel.

Serena dearly loved the Ritz. She ate dozens of watercress sandwiches and gazed at herself in the mirror and swam in the bathtub. And while Louis stood and looked out of the window at the Public Garden down below, Serena would walk round and around, turning lights on and off for the fun of it. Then they would both get into the bathtub and go to sleep.

It's a lovely book, but somehow it seems more like any kids' book, and less moving than White's others. Perhaps the question of Wilbur's survival or of what Stuart, who is only four inches tall, will do with his life, are more important than Louis's falling in love and restoring his father's imagined honor. They seem more real, more unusual than the usual children's fare. Or maybe I'm just getting old. . . .