“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski

Hailed by many critics as one of the best books of 2008, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle fit nicely into my informal self-teaching Shakespeare unit that began in earnest last year, and shows no sign of stopping. (Kinda like that last sentence. Heh.) I was disappointed when it didn’t earn a slot at The Morning News 2009 Tournament of Books, but decided to read it anyway. I’ll compare it when I do read those candidates. Like the Oscars, sometimes the best works don’t get nominated.

Edgar is a mute boy whose parents own a small dog-raising farm in Wisconsin. His story closely follows Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Edgar is named for his father, who is married to Trudy, and has a ne’er-do-well brother, Claude. Wroblewski departs from a strict homage,though, because the dog farm is more than a metaphor for a kingdom; the dogs are characters in themselves, and some of the most complex, loveliest-drawn I’ve read. Though her passages were few, Edgar’s companion Almondine had some of the most insightful and touching chapters in the book.

Yet he was gone. She knew it most keenly in the diminishment of her own self. In her life, she’d been nourished and sustained by certain things, him being one of them, Trudy another, and Edgar, the third and mot important, but it was really the three of them together, intersecting in her, for each of them powered her heart a different way. (195)

While the book closely follows the events of the play, it’s the character of Edgar, so much more sympathetic than that of Hamlet, and the details of the dog training and personalities that make this book stand on its own, not just as an homage. I was struck by the many similarities between raising dogs and raising boys:

She didn’t think that the lessons of dog training always transferred to people, but it was just the nature of things that if you punished anyone, dog or boy, when they got close to a thing, they’d get it in their head the thing was bad. She’d seen people ruin dogs too many times by forcing them to repeat a trial that scared the dog or even hurt it. Not finding a variation on the same task, not coming at things from a different angle, not making the dog relish whatever it was that had to be done, was a failure of the imagination. (298)

Edgar and his story challenged me to think of some of the events in Hamlet in different ways. More important, and less tangible, was how engaged I was with the book. I’d be doing errands, or away from the house, and I would miss the book. I’d wonder what the people and dogs were doing within the covers. It’s not often a book so inveigles itself into my life.

8 Responses to ““The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski”

  1. Mindy Withrow Says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this, and even more so now that you have presented the Hamlet connection. Thanks for the review!

  2. Kate Says:

    I’ve thought about this book a lot, because most people I know really enjoyed it and I did not, as much. This is why I think–I loved the characters, particularly Edgar. I thought they were interesting and compelling and worth knowing. I became frustrated when I felt like the author forced them into following the Hamlet plot. I thought there was a story there with those characters that didn’t have to be the Hamlet story. And it’s not just that I really, really, really did not want Edgar to be a tragic hero, though I did not. I mostly had lots of other questions about the dogs and their history and the lives of the characters that I thought would make a more interesting book than the one the author wrote. I felt they acted out of character when the author was hewing to the Hamlet plot.

    And yes, the post-modernist part of me is screaming that characters don’t exist out of the story they are in or beyond the page, but it’s still the only way I can think to explain my general disappointment in the book.

    I really like your insight on raising dogs and raising boys.

  3. Steph Says:

    “I’d be doing errands, or away from the house, and I would miss the book. I’d wonder what the people and dogs were doing within the covers.” I think that’s probably the best recommendation one can ever make about a book. I love when I find myself in the midst of a book, everything framed relative to it, rather than simply feeling like I’m squeezing it into my life. Sounds like this is one that really transports the reader. I’ll have to give it a shot.

  4. Amy Says:

    Sounds like it’s more deserving of a Tournament of Books spot than some of the books on the list (cough WHITE TIGER cough HOME cough).

  5. girldetective Says:

    I knew you didn’t like White Tiger, but didn’t know about Home. How did you feel about Gilead? I liked it, but thought it was really slow (appropriate for a tale told by a very old man) so can understand why many didn’t like it.

    I really liked Edgar, too, but I know many didn’t, plus intellectual snobs rebel against Oprah books. Yeah, the plot isn’t original, but the characters and writing were good, IMO.

  6. girldetective Says:

    Beware: very sad things happen, sometimes to dogs. Given what you’ve commented elsewhere, I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to cry. I did.

  7. girldetective Says:

    That’s always frustrating to me when others like something and I don’t. I feel like I have to work extra hard to justify not loving it, and even then I get “are you crazy?” or “you are stupid and wrong” comments. So I feel your pain, even if I did like this.

    I never had a problem with the Hamlet plot; it felt very natural for me, and I appreciated some of the more varied analogs, like the dog farm for Denmark. SPOILERS HERE: I thought that Edgar’s fate didn’t have to play out as it did in the book, but I think the book was perhaps more about the dogs than the humans, and the end was the dogs moving on to their uber-dogness, beyond being companions.

  8. Kate Says:

    :) Thanks–that’s exactly how I feel about my feelings about this book.

    And I like the idea about the book’s ultimate focus on the dogs moving to uber-dogness. I can see that.

    My final comment, promise–I did hear Diane Rehm’s interview of the author a while back, which is when I decided to read the book. Someone said the book “alluded to” or was “inspired by” Hamlet. I wish someone had said instead (spoiler?) “this isn’t inspired by Hamlet, this IS Hamlet” and then I might not have been quite so sad at the end.