Favorite Fictional Characters, #256: Fern Arable
Everybody loves Charlotte's Web. Naive, kindhearted Wilbur. Erudite, selfless Charlotte. Templeton, that fat, useful bastard. There's nothing like talking animals to excite the imagination of a young (or old) reader. But while this rightful classic is certainly rooted in the deep themes of friendship and trust and sacrifice playing out in the barnyard, there are other, subtler narratives happening with the human folk. With farm-girl Fern Arable, Wilbur's heroic foster mother, we are treated to one of the most authentic, poignant, and bittersweet portrayals of the slipping away of childhood ever written.
Fern is eight when the story begins, and still possessed of a child's concrete and inviolable sense of justice. She cannot let her father kill a pig just because it is the runt of the litter. Instead she raises the piglet herself. This brief introductory sequence, prelude to the main storyline, illustrates Fern's fine qualities - compassion for a more vulnerable living thing, courage to confront her father, industry to care for her porcine charge. This is a mature little girl. And yet, she's still a little girl, pig-tails and all, with the doll-carriage to prove it.
Fern becomes a spectator to much of the rest of the book, as the drama of the lucky pig and the literate spider unfolds. She still loves Wilbur, of course, and is invested in his survival and success, but the first signs of a broader world begin to intrude. The Fair, once all about Wilbur, becomes more about begging her parents for money, and about Henry Fussy and the Ferris wheel.
There's a brief heartbeat in childhood, an eye-blink, between playing with toys and the first hints of romance at the fair. I see it with my own third-grader, beginning to set aside childish things and reach for the eventual manhood still thankfully years from his grasp. It's not here yet, but I begin to see the man in the boy. He still takes my hand once in a while, though, and part of me wishes I could make this moment last a little longer. It's a moment EB White freezes in amber with Fern Arable, and reminds me how precious and fleeting this time is for a child.