William Shakespeare's Hamlet has been told and retold countless times in the last 400 years. But neither it's iconic familiarity nor popularity stops David Wroblewski from tackling it in his debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This time the setting is a pastoral Wisconsin farm where the Sawtelle family has been engaged for several generations in breeding and raising a special kind of dog that goes beyond a simple trained pet to a sensitive and intelligent companion.
Details of the breeding and training programs are a major focus of the story, and the whole beginning section sets up the history of the farm, the dogs, and teenage Edgar's personal history -- his inability to speak at birth, learning to communicate through sign language, his lifelong companion Almondine, and his relationship with his parents, Gar and Trudy. When his long-absent uncle Claude enters the picture, things in his world begin to fall apart, culminating in the sudden death of his father. In the midst of their grief, Trudy and Edgar are vulnerable and desperate, and Claude tries to work his way into their hearts to replace the anchor they've lost. It works on Trudy, but Edgar is suspicious and jealous and soon the story of Hamlet begins to really take off.
The appearance of his father's ghost, his consuming rage that verges on madness, the play contrived to determine his uncle's guilt, the exile to England, and a final scene of confrontation and truth revealed -- all these scenes from Hamlet are replayed in Edgar Sawtelle. But they are worked into this new story of Edgar and his grieving mother and their dogs and the Wisconsin landscape in such a way that you still feel like you are uncovering the story for the first time with just a hint of familiarity, rather than rushing on a freight train of predictability. The narrative is lyrical and intelligent, the pace thoughtful, and the character exploration deep and compassionate.
And now you'll get to hear our take on it!
Caren: For starters, I am not a dog person. (Think of Henry Lamb from the story.) I roll my eyes at people who treat them like their babies. I shy away from them when they approach me on the street, hoping they'll keep their tongues to themselves. I think they're hairy and stinky and slobbery and obnoxious, and I will never voluntarily own one. So I wasn't thrilled to read yet another story about a boy and his dog and their special relationship and blah blah blah. But wow, that no more describes The Story of Edgar Sawtelle than calling the Titanic a boat! The Sawtelle Dogs were created with such detail, such intelligence, and such compassion that I found myself wishing I could own one. Me! I'm still shaking my head in disbelief that Wroblewski could undermine that deeply held prejudice of mine. Good thing it's just fiction and there are no true Sawtelle Dogs, so when the effects of this story wear off that prejudice should remain safely intact!
Jenny: I felt the exact same way about the Sawtelle dogs. I'm not crazy about dogs in general, but I wanted one of those dogs. If they were real, my husband might someday talking me into owning one. It's a very good thing it's fiction.
I loved your summary of the book, Caren. When I got my copy from the library, I had an internal debate about whether or not to brush up on Hamlet before I dove in. I had a vague idea of the general plot of the play, but since it's been years since I've read or seen it, the only details I could remember was that Hamlet's uncle killed his father, there were some ghosts, some crazy people and everybody died in the end. I decided instead just to read the book and judge it by how much I enjoyed it, instead of how close it held true to the play.
Everything felt vaguely familiar, like you described, but I was so caught up in the story and Edgar's life that it felt completely new. Even the ending caught me a bit off guard, even though I knew better that it wasn't going to end happily. Looking back, I am so glad that Wroblewski did all that work to introduce us to the Sawtelle family, their history and their dogs so that it didn't dive right into Claude showing up and turning everything topsy turvy. How would we know how thoroughly he changed their lives if we didn't know what it was like before?
Caren: Yes, I think that was a wise move on his part. It took a long time to develop, but I felt so much more deeply for Edgar after Gar's death than I would have if we'd just skipped right ahead to the main action (as Shakespeare does). It also helped make Trudy a more sympathetic character than the original Queen Gertrude; a woman with strength of character and deep love for her husband who was drowning in grief and grabbed the only lifeline she could find. Seeing things from her perspective and the depth of the grief she and Edgar experienced made a difference (and also made their closeness seem more natural and less like Shakespeare's "bordering on incestuous" version). And I don't think we could have fully appreciated that grief without all of the backstory leading up to Gar's death and coming to love him as a living, vibrant character.
I have to admit that most of what I remember from the original Hamlet wasn't from reading it, but rather from the film versions (I prefer Kenneth Branagh's). It's been a while since I've either read it or watched it, so some of the parallels weren't as obvious to me at first. I didn't pick up on who was Polonius until the scene where he died, and I puzzled and puzzled over who Ophelia was until finally when Edgar was on his way home and pining for Almondine. I felt really stupid about missing the Fortinbras/Forte connection since just his name should have made it obvious! Horatio was a little harder to pin down, I thought, but I also didn't remember much about him as a character, so maybe there were more connections than I picked up on.
The more I started making the connections, though, the more I was impressed at how Wroblewski wove the two stories together. And like you said, it was easy to get caught up in Edgar's story because it felt very genuine and organic -- not at all like he was manipulating it just to fit the classic. Even if you removed the Hamlet parallels, the story was strong enough to stand on it's own, and there was enough variation that I didn't feel like I knew how it was going to end until the final pages. I kept hoping for a happy ending, and while it wasn't as happy as I would have liked, it was at least softened with the final scene between Edgar and his dad.
Jenny: Okay, it wasn't until you started listing off characters that I remembered who all the other people of the original play were. Wow, my brain is rusty. It does make me want to grab a copy of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and watch it again. What is it with that man and Shakespeare? Why is he so darn good at it? On a total sidenote, I love his version of Much Ado About Nothing. I've probably seen it three or four times and it still hasn't gotten old.
Back to Edgar. You know what is interesting to me? This is Wroblewski's first book and he's not a young guy. If this is his first attempt, what else could he have in store for us? And why did it take so long? And is he going to get cracking and write something else or do a Harper Lee and disappear? I think of all this because his first book is based on Hamlet, for cryin' in the mud. Will he stick with the Shakespeare angle or show us his stuff with something completely different? I just want to knock on his door and ask.
Did you not want to go to Wisconsin after reading these descriptions? I grew up in the Midwest and I thought I knew exactly what it was like, but he made it new to me. The rambling forests, the streams and lakes, the bugs and cold and harshness. By golly, he better write another book.
Caren: Yeah, talk about jumping into the deep end of the pool for a first novel! But he completely knocked it out of the park (yes, I'm mixing metaphors), so I would be very interested to see what else he produces. Reading the acknowledgments at the end made it seem like it was a pretty arduous project, so I guess we can't expect him to be the kind of author that puts out a new novel once a year! But I loved the depth with which he explored grief, love, and our need for language despite its inadequacies. There are so many ways to examine this story and its themes, and then he wraps it up with stirring metaphors and beautiful pastoral imagery. I have never been to Wisconsin, but I felt like I was there and it made me wistful to visit. Well, except for the tornadoes and waterspouts. I could do without those! Oh yes, and the mosquitoes! (shudder, shudder)
Jenny: That's what I'm saying here, he needs to write some more, but I'll give him some time if he's got to do some leg work. Well, I give this book a big recommendation. Make the time and dive in.
Caren: Me too! By the way, for those who are sensitive to these things, be forewarned that there are a few instances of bad language. But for a novel that size the bad language was pretty sparse and other than that I can't remember anything objectionable. Definitely a worthwhile read!