Short Story Review: Death of a Pig

Happily, I will be reviewing a number of short stories and poems this year, as a function of teaching a high school English class for a home school co-op. Last year, with my son in middle school, I read several short stories but didn’t think to review them. While I really like reviewing anthologies and story collections, I think it’ll be just fine to have a list of great short stories, too.

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So the first short story we are reading this year is “Death of a Pig” by E. B. White. It was recommended in a book that I use to keep my kid up to Common Core standards, which means it is a classic but one that I don’t recall ever hearing about let alone reading. Of course, I know who E. B. White is. He (yes, he not she) is the author of Charlotte’s Web as well as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. He wrote other stories, as well, and co-wrote the quintessential The Elements of Style and for The New Yorker. This essay—“Death of a Pig”—came from The Atlantic and we’re using it as a nonfiction piece to summarize for a paper-writing assignment.

I was pleasantly surprised when I read it. It sounds so bleak, I thought it was going to be gruesome like Vietnam War writing. It’s not children’s writing like his more famous stuff, but it is appropriate for eighth or ninth grade in its scope. It’s also appropriate for adults, the audience White—the busy essayist—had in mind when he wrote it. I don’t want to give too much away but White tells us from the beginning (and the title) that he has a farm, he had a pig, and he was unable to save the pig from the illness that will fill the few days we are about to hear about. It has a sadness to it, a tragedy, but the story is ultimately a comi-tragedy. White’s dachshund is the most surprising bit of the story—comic relief of the most absurd and blackest sort—though there are other surprising bits. The story-telling is masterful. There are lines of breathtaking beauty and craft, tricks of the trade so seamless you probably won’t notice them. I laughed. I sighed. I underlined golden moments. I thought about death and man’s place in the world and whatnot.

In other words, I would recommend reading “Death of a Pig” by E. B. White. Probably I would recommend other essays by White but I need to keep reading other things I’ve assigned to my ninth graders, at this time.


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