SOMETIMES A BOOK COMES ALONG and you feel so lucky that somebody pressed it into your hands to read that you read it right away.
When I was in fourth grade at Saint Cecilia's in Ames, Iowa, my teacher, Miss LeClair, told me I was a good writer. This was news to me. I had been struggling with latitude and longitude, long division, and Father Joseph Sullivan's decree that girls could not wear pants to school, only dresses, even in snowstorms. According to my teachers and parents, I was "quiet, pleasant, shy, very tall, well behaved, and excellent at cleaning kitchens." I imagined a long and dull life of dresses, algebra, and scoured pots and pans.
But when Miss LeClair told me I was a good writer, the doors and windows cast open to let in sun, wind, and relief. I went home that day, grabbed one of my father's yellow pad notebooks, and headed out to go notice things. I tasted the hard green apples (surprisingly sour) in Sarah Campbell's backyard. I watched the puffy white clouds slung in the sky over Ames. The smell of fresh cut grass made me wonder if my mother was making manicotti for dinner that night — a rare treat. I listened to my brothers riding Big Wheels up and down Clark Street. As I felt the wind and sun on my face and reveled in the newly discovered art of paying attention, I knew I had found something to do with my life. I called my essay "The Five Cents." I had meant to write "The Five Senses," but I wasn't much better at spelling than I was at longitude and latitude. Still, Miss LeClair gave me hope.
This summer, I read a book that also gave me hope, Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. It is, of course, aboutCharlotte's Web, but it's also about how a little boy named Elwyn grew up to become the writer E.B. White. In this lovingly rendered portrait, Sims details a life of careful listening, insatiable curiosity, and empathy toward all living creatures from people to spiders to pigs (the exception being rodents, which is why Templeton, the rat, made for such a hilariously greedy character).
White was still a child when his father, Samuel, brought the whole family for a two-week stay at Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade, Maine. The White family bunked in a cabin with a sign that said "Happy Days." As a young teenager, White made a pamphlet for his friend, Freddie Schuler, called "Belgrade Lake & Snug Harbor," a handwritten account of his Maine summers and an attempt at capturing "the conservation of beauty in prose." Sims describes White's love affair with this place, and its lasting effect on his consciousness:
Elwyn crept through the dark and aromatic marsh, past croaking frogs and unexplained scurries, to the boulders, beyond which distant lights shone on the water. There was this short and slight boy, who would run blocks to avoid a bully but who felt safe in the natural world when no other people were around, would shed his clothes and slip into the black water. Quietly, so as not to attract attention, he swam in the darkness, floating under the stars, unafraid.
Romantics will appreciate the details about White and his wife, Katharine Angell, his co-worker and editor at the New Yorker. As a couple, they lived half the year in New York and half the year in Maine. Sims ...read more