The Trumpet of the Swan

The Trumpet of the Swan is a children’s story by E. B. White, published in 1970.  His is the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute.  He is unable to make the honking cry that marks his species.  At first, as just a fluffy gray cygnet in Canada, Louis doesn’t mind, but when he and his concerned parents migrate to the Red Rock Lakes in Montana, he finds he is unable to woo his mate, the love of his life, the beautiful Serena.  In a dramatic scene of broken glass complete with a fainting sales girl, his father steals a trumpet on a string, from a music store in Billings.  He wants to give his son a voice. 

Anxious to pay off this debt, Louis gets a series of jobs.  Louis starts off as a bugler, playing taps, reveille and mess call at Camp Kookooskoos, a boy’s summer camp.  He is awarded $100 dollars for rescuing a boy from drowning.  His next job is leading the Swan Boat in the Boston Public Garden. He is an instant success and earns $100 a week.  He stays in the Ritz Hotel and sleeps in the bathtub.  Finally he gets a job performing jazz in a Philadelphia night club.  There he earns $500 a week and gets to stay for free at the Philadelphia Zoo. 

One day, Serena who is lost and disoriented, lands in the zoo.  Louis intercedes with the zoo keepers and prevents them from clipping her wings.  Together they fly back to Montana.  Louis gives his father the money to payback the music store.  Afraid that the swan will destroy another window, the storekeeper shoots the old cob.  Louis’s father faces death with this grand soliloquy:

. . . Man, in his folly, has given me a mortal wound. The red blood flows in a steady trickle from my veins. My strength fails . . . Good-bye, life! Good-bye, beautiful world! Good-bye little lakes in the north! Farewell, springtimes I have known, with their passion and ardor!

The rhetoric is comic, but White’s tribute is sincere.  His father recovers from his wound.  Louis’ trumpet is heard years later as he serenades his own cygnets and pens.

White wrote two other children’s novels, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, this was his third.  While critics and the general public appreciate the first two novels more, to quote John Updike in his review of this book:

The Trumpet of the Swan glows with the primal ecstasies of space and flight, of night and day, of nurturing and maturing, of courtship and art.  On the last page Louis thinks of “how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music.”  How rare that word “lucky” has become!  The universe remains chancy, but no one admits to having good luck.  We, and our children, are lucky to have this book.

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Some of the material for this post is attributable to Kim Todd’s Orion Magazine article.

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