Disability and the Extraordinary in The Trumpet of the Swan by Tina L. Peterson
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, but I do recall thinking of Charlotte’s Web as White’s other book. That’s how important Trumpet was to me when I was a child.
Rereading it as an adult, I was struck by the enduring relevance of a major theme in the book: disability. Louis the swan is born without a voice, and cannot make a trumpeting “ko-hoh” sound like his siblings, parents and friends.
(Trumpeter swans are grand and rare birds, and well named as their calls bear striking resemblance to trumpets. Readers of all ages will get a kick out of the many available Youtube videos of swan calls and cygnets’ first steps.)
Louis’s efforts to overcome his disability send his life in extraordinary directions. He befriends a young boy, Sam, and attends school with him, where he learns to read and write. When Louis returns home and fails to communicate with his fellow (unschooled) swans via the written word, his father takes drastic action and steals a trumpet from a music store to give his son a “voice.” Louis’s motivation to earn money, pay back the storekeeper and restore his father’s good name drives much of the plot.
Some of the most affecting chapters are those in which Louis masters the trumpet. It does not come easily to a bird to play an instrument designed for human hands, and Louis struggles mightily at first. Later, he even submits to a minor (painless) operation on his webbed feet in order to play the full scale of notes.
Any reader who has ever felt out of place or without a voice will identify with Louis’s frustration when he cannot make himself understood by his friends and family. My heart breaks when he sadly erases from his slate the words “Hi there,” after they elicit blank stares from his parents and siblings.
His rags-to-riches adventures as a professional musician are sure to inspire daydreams. As a kid living a suburban, lower middle-class life in Colorado, I was dazzled by Louis’s late hours playing at nightclubs in Philadelphia and his experience ordering room service in a fancy Boston hotel.
Grown-up readers will appreciate White’s witty dialogue, especially that between Louis’s grandiloquent, pontificating father and his no-nonsense mother. The novel sparkles with gentle humor, starting when baby Louis greets his new friend Sam by untying his shoelaces.
The novel is not without its flaws, and older readers may sense a bit of “Mad Men” sexism in some passages (to be fair, White wrote it in the 1960s). Many of the female characters, save Louis’s mother, are one-dimensional. Louis’s beloved, Serena, comes off as shallow and materialistic. Some of the terms may require explanation for younger readers; “queer” is frequently used to mean strange, and Louis’s father refers to him not unkindly as “dumb” when he realizes he cannot speak.
These outdated conventions are minor distractions from what is otherwise a charming and compassionate story. White was a keen observer of nature and humanity, and his curiosity about, and respect for, both are evident in his tale of Louis the extraordinary swan.
Tina L. Peterson is an educator and children’s author whose first book, Oscar and the Amazing Gravity Repellent, will be published by Capstone in fall 2015. She blogs at tinalpeterson.com/blog