To those of us raised on 'Charlotte's Web,' pigs are what the fair is all about

Eric Ringham
Eric Ringham: Swine flu poses a threat to health and to children's literature, too.
MPR Photo

Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm is sounding the alarm about the possibility of a swine flu outbreak at the State Fair. He thinks the fair should close its pig exhibit this year.

That course might be prudent, but it's unthinkable — at least to those of us who grew up on "Charlotte's Web" and went on to read it to our own children. To us, pigs are what the fair is all about. The heroine of the story, a spider named Charlotte, uses the county fair to save her friend, a young pig named Wilbur.

It would be a shame if "Charlotte's Web" became an anachronism (or arachnidism?) because of the swine-flu threat. But I have good news: It's possible to adapt "Charlotte's Web" to the new reality, while losing none of the charm in E.B. White's original text of 60 years ago. I've already started working on it:

"At nine o'clock, Mr. Arable's truck rolled into the Fair Grounds and came to a stop at Wilbur's pen. Everybody put on surgical masks and climbed out.

" 'Look!' cried Fern through her mask. 'Look at Charlotte's web! Look what it says!'

"The grownups and the children joined hands and stood at a safe distance, studying the new sign.

" ' "Immunized,"' said Mr. Zuckerman. 'Now isn't that just the word for Wilbur!'

"Everyone rejoiced to find that the miracle of the web had been repeated. Wilbur gazed up lovingly into what he could see of their faces. His vision grew blurry, and he hoped it wasn't from fever.

" 'Wait a minute!' cried Avery, holding his mask with one hand and pointing with the other. 'This pig has won first prize already.'

"The Zuckermans and the Arables stared at the blue tag on Uncle's pen. Then they stared at Uncle. Then they stared at the tag again. Then the enormous pig let out an even more enormous sneeze. It was so loud that the Public Health team standing by in the horse barn heard it and came running. Men in white suits slapped a large sign saying QUARANTINE over Uncle's pen.

"Mrs. Zuckerman wiped her eyes with her handkerchief and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves. She went to the truck and came back with a gallon jar of hand sanitizer.

" 'Bath time!' said Zuckerman, cheerfully. He and Mrs. Zuckerman and Avery climbed into Wilbur's pen. Avery slowly poured hand sanitizer on Wilbur's head and back, and as it trickled down his sides and cheeks, Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerman rubbed it into his hair and skin. Pretty soon quite a crowd had gathered to watch on the TV monitors by the door. Wilbur grew beautifully white and antiseptic. The morning sun shone through his pink ears.

" 'He isn't as big as that pig next door,' remarked one bystander, 'but he's germ-free. That's what I like.'

" 'So do I,' said another man.

" 'He's immunized, too,' said a woman, reading the sign on the web.

"Everybody had a good word to say about Wilbur. Everyone admired the web. Those who didn't want to go near the swine barn admired the website. And of course nobody noticed Charlotte.

"She was in a class by herself, and Wilbur loved her dearly. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and not at risk for species-to-species transmission. Charlotte was both."

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