E.B. White

The Trumpet of the Swan

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The Trumpet of the Swan Summary

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The Trumpet of the Swan is a children’s novel published in 1970 by E.B. White. It concerns the struggle of a swan named Louis who is born without a voice and learns to play the trumpet in order to win the love of a swan named Serena. Based on the real-life trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the novel moralizes the struggle to overcome life’s inherent challenges with practice and determination.

The story begins in spring 1968, where a cob and pen—male and female adult trumpeter swans—build their summer nesting spot on a little island in a pond. An 11-year-old boy named Sam Beaver disturbs their sense of safety in the pond while camping nearby during a trip with his father. Sam returns to the pond each day to watch the swans and the cob states that humans are a threat to swans. One day, the pen leaves the nest to stretch, and a fox sneaks up on her. Sam appears and scares the fox away, saving the pen and her eggs. After being saved by Sam, they trust him. Their babies are born and the cob leads them to Sam for an introduction. The little cygnets chirp one by one to greet him, but the last one in the procession is Louis, who is unable to make a sound, instead tugging on Sam’s shoelace. The parents sense that he is mute.

Louis’ parents become concerned about his ability to find a mate without a mating call. His father vows to devise a way for him to talk. When the summer ends, the family of swans migrates to their winter home in Montana called Red Rock Lakes. Louis resolves to become literate in order to communicate, and departs in search of Sam. Sam takes Louis to his school the next day, where Louis quickly picks up reading and writing skills. Sam gifts him a blackboard and chalk to bring with him to communicate.

When Louis returns, he realizes that he still cannot communicate despite all his efforts, because the other swans are illiterate. Nevertheless, he falls in love with a swan named Serena, but is unable to get her attention. Louis’ father knows that trumpeter swans get their name from the musical instrument that humans use, and tries to acquire one for him. He breaks into a music store in Billings and steals one. Louis practices, but by the time he grows proficient, Serena has returned north. Rather than go north with his family and risk seeing Serena, Louis guiltily visits Sam and tells him about the stolen trumpet. Sam tells Louis he might feel better if he gets a job to help pay for the trumpet and repairs to the store’s broken window. Sam helps him find a job as a bugle player at his camp called Camp Kookooskoos. Louis convinces Sam to split apart one of the webs of his feet with a razor to create flexible “fingers” to play the bugle better.

That summer, Louis broadens his musical abilities and writes a love song for Serena. He also saves a drowning camper and receives a medal for his heroism. When the summer ends, he has $100 and carries it along with his trumpet. Louis takes Sam’s suggestion that he work with the Swan Boats, a company in Boston. Louis travels there and receives a salary of $100 per week in addition to a private hotel room.

Louis’ prodigious musical ability is soon recognized on the East Coast, and a nightclub in Philadelphia offers him $500 a week to play. He moves there and stays temporarily at the zoo, which promises not to imprison him like the other swans.

One night during a storm, Serena loses track of where she is flying and plunges into the zoo’s lake. Louis plays “Beautiful Dreamer” to her, and she finally falls in love. The zookeepers notice Serena and try to clip her wings. Louis attacks them and manages to convince the head zookeeper to suspend the operation while he contacts Sam for help. Sam finds him in Philadelphia and negotiates the terms of Serena’s freedom. They agree to give one of their babies from each year’s litter to the zoo.

Serena and Louis fly back to the Red Rock Lakes. Now that he plans to live only in the swan community, he writes an apology to the music store owner on his chalkboard and sends a bag of money to the music store. The storekeeper panics when Louis’ father approaches, shooting him before he discovers the note and money. He takes him to heal at a veterinary hospital. When Louis’ father recovers, he returns to the Red Rock Lakes.

The novel ends with Sam as a young adult returning to camp in Canada. He hears a trumpet playing near the lake and believes it is Louis, documenting the encounter in his journal as his favorite sound.

The Trumpet of the Swan is a classic bildungsroman that uses the voiceless swan to model a condition of disability that initially renders its animal subject isolated from his community. Louis’ development as an individual is contingent on his successful passage through institutions in which he actively practices other modes of expression and learns to internalize social norms. By the end of White’s novel, Louis has integrated into his society and learned to capitalize on his uniqueness.