The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
by David Wroblewski
Book description from Amazon.com: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections.
Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.
Somewhere (I think on the back cover) I had read that this book was basically an update of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so I knew to expect certain things from the plot and the characters. But it’s a strict adaptation, as my little list will show. If you haven’t read the book, don’t read the following list, because it is chock full of SPOILERS and CONTEXT-FREE REFERENCES to the plot.
I never had a dog growing up so I don't understand the whole "man's best friend" thing. That said, I thought Edgar's soulmate connection with Almondine was really, really creepy. I mean, I guess Sawtelle dogs had been bred for generations so that they were 'thinking' dogs, but they still aren't people.
I did really like the chapters in which Edgar was surviving on his own, with his three dogs accompanying him. It was fun and light compared to much of the book, plus Edgar was actually doing something besides pouting sullenly in the corner.
Also, so much was made of the connection/relationship between man and his dogs, but at the end the dogs abandon the people who have loved and raised them. What the hell kind of message is that?
This was an unusual way to update the story of Hamlet to an American setting in a rural part of the north. Changing out a king for a dog breeder and a kingdom for a kennel, and basically using the dogs in place of soldiers and courtiers...I never would have thought to do so. That was a creative stroke on Wroblewski's part.
The 'updated' names were well done, although it took me a few minute so figure out GAR and EdGAR. (In the original play, both King and son are named Hamlet.) Gertrude = Trudy. Claudius = Claude. Polonius = Papineau. Ophelia =...Almondine? It falls apart after a while, I guess.
I'm disappointed that there was no 'Alas, poor Yorrick' scene, but perhaps I just missed it. Also, I'm curious who Henry is meant to correspond with in the play. (I’m guessing Horatio?)
3. Is Claude evil?
Hard to say. Is he a bad man? Yes. What motivates him? Did he buy that poison to kill Gar, or was it just his 'fail-safe' with no specific recipient? Was Claude in love with Trudy, or in love with the idea of 'besting' Gar? Why did he want the kennel, anyway? What did he do over in Vietnam?
The writing was quite good and evocative, but I never found myself full of wonder at the beauty of nature or anything like that. I just would wince, again and again, at descriptions of the dogs, or Edgar's fight (so to speak) with Glen and later Claude, the characters' pain, etc. But I generally didn't like the characters or care about them. I didn't care if Claude got the kennel or Edgar's mother was sad that he was gone or that Edgar missed Almondine. Why was that? Why didn't I get 'into' the story?
I don't know why, and it bugs me a bit.
POOR GLEN though. He totally got screwed over in this book. What the heck did he ever do to deserve blindness and worse? Yeesh.
What a friggen' whiner. I don't care that he's 14, a teenager, and therefore prone to stupid angst and moodiness. I still didn't like him, because as I read all I could think was What the hell is this kid's problem?? I mean, OK, he had a lot of problems. Couldn't talk. Father died. Uncle may have killed father. Witnessed the death of someone he considered a family friend. But he's so paranoid and skittish...Edgar's like a tinfoil-hat-wearing crazy person.
Also...it almost never talks about his life away from the kennel. The kid went to school every day. Was he teased mercilessly for his lack of a voice? What was it like, living in a world where everyone else talks?
6. Humor...or lack thereof
The story's a downer from page one. I mean, there are a couple of funny bits when Edgar's on the run, but for the most part it's a sad story that dragged a lot. The whole 'burning down the barn' in the final pages, and the sudden mind-shifting between Trudy, Claude and Edgar - a device used infrequently in the rest of the book but exclusively in the section 'Poison' - got really annoying.
Why is Ophelia a dog? Creepy creepy creepy.
Also, the chapter that went inside her head, and told events from her point of view, was weak. It didn't engage me. I felt nothing when she died.
8. The Jungle Book
Oh, wait, I get it. Edgar's like Mowgli, and he lives with the animals in the animal world and not in the people world, because in the people world your father gets murdered and your uncle shags your mother. I see what you're getting at, book. I see why you keep bringing up Rudyard Kipling's famous novel.
But I don't care, and frankly I don't feel that it contributes to the discussion.
9. Plot Threads
This book had threads unraveling all over the place. Again and again, Wroblewski would bring something up, make it seem like it was a major part of the story...and never touch it again. He'd raise question after question, but never give any answers. DROVE. ME. NUTS.
10. The End
It sucked. It lacks the elegance and punch of Shakespeare's ending. It's utterly depressing, and the lack of artistry really drags the book down. It seems like the author was running out of steam and interest, so he just wrapped things up bombastically and called it a wrap.
Yet, for all that, I kept on reading and a book that inspired this much discussion for me can't be that bad. It's a good book, I'll grant that. It just isn't a "Great!" or "WOW!" book, and by setting itself up for inevitable comparisons to masterpieces like Hamlet, it was virtually guaranteed to be disappointing in the end.
3.5 out of 5 stars