Book Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Publisher: Harper Collins, 562 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle begins, unexpectedly, in 1952 Busan with a secret night meeting between a US serviceman and a Korean herbalist. The service man offers penicillin in exchange for poison. The herbalist says, “I think here we trade one life for one life” (5).    

The prologue ends without naming the serviceman, and chapter one begins with Edgar Sawtelle’s grandfather and the founding of the family businessa unique breed of dog sought after by dog lovers throughout the Great Lakes region that has been scientifically bred for personality and intelligence rather than for physical traits. These dogs are the perfect friends for Edgar, who was born mute. Edgar lives with his parents in an idyllic rural setting where life is good until it isn’t. One day Edgar’s uncle comes to stay and work on the farm. Later, when Edgar’s father falls ill and dies, Edgar and his mother Trudy find themselves mired in sadness. In the aftermath of Edgar’s father’s death, Edgar’s uncle Claude makes himself an indispensable part of the householdhelping in the kennels, nursing his mother through a bout of pneumonia, raising his mother’s spirits.

While feeding the dogs, Edgar is visited by a ghost appears silhouetted by “hundreds of raindropsthousands—suspended for a heartbeat in the lamplight” (235). The ghost tells Edgar he was poisoned, and he demands revenge. Edgar must find his proof and search his soul to find the right course to take.

Meanwhile a terrible accident occurs, after which Edgar and his faithful dog Almondine go on the run, traversing miles and miles of forest, on a coming-of-age quest that will change him and his family forever.  

What I thought:

I wasn’t going to read this book.

Actually, I was intrigued by the mute, dog-whisperer protagonist until I heard the whole Hamlet re-make discussion.

I have nothing against remakes. In fact, I like them. I’m totally down with these:

Clueless (Emma)

Here On Earth (Wuthering Heights)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) Okay, not up to the original, but still fun.

West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)

So, Hamlet. The reason I didn’t relish a fictional re-imagining had to do with the dreaded march toward mayhem, “Of deaths put on by cunning,” as Fortinbras laments.

You would not envision someone who loves ghost novels as an emotional coward, but I am one.

Naturally, I did the cowardly thing—I read the ending first. That survived, I was able to go forth and enjoy the book.

And enjoy I did. The added bonus was the ghost. I wasn’t expecting that much verisimilitude, but the ghost enabled me to add the novel to my ghost novel reviews. Lucky you, my devoted readers.

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Wroblewski’s re-imagining of Hamlet is skillfully done, yet he does so much more. There’s an interesting interview with the author in the back in which he protests the reduction of his entire story to Hamlet, and I quite agree. Edgar Sawtelle is rich with character and motive and love and setting. The modern day Trudy feels more human and maternal than Gertude; Claude is as deliciously cunning as Claudius. But the careful reader can find touches of mythology and Greek tragedies as well.

Wroblewski so deftly handles the depth and interaction of character that the only time I found myself wandering from the thrust of the story was when the mute protagonist Edgar wanders in the forest. And wanders. And wanders some more. That old saggy middle problem. One could probably chop out ten pages in this section to the betterment of the book. In Hamlet, this plot point takes place offstage.

But I found myself riveted by the other 552 pages. And that’s saying a lot, particularly in an era when agents and publishers extol manuscripts of 90,000 words, roughly 325 pages.

Overall, I highly recommend The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for its poignant exploration of the family-versus-self polarity. And for the very human interplay of love, loyalty and loss.

The Letter

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The Letter

You’ve been wronged.

You’re a writer. What do you do?

You write The Letter.

Writing letters is good—as cathartic as crooning a Taylor Swift ballad in a crowded noriebang. (Noriebang = Korean singing room.)

Sending such letters is bad. You (generally) observe a time-tested rule: Write the letter. Don’t send it.

So you write it, select your words, hone the craft. This you can do. Alliterative phrases come trippingly off the tongue, phrases such as “cowardly cad”. Ah, but—tongue between teeth to quell your glee—you don’t write that. Not that.

Finished. It is a thing of beauty, this letter. Each word glistens like a solitary star in a pristine galaxy far, far away…

Yet it is bitter. But you like it because it is bitter, and because it is your heart. (You toss silent, heart-felt apologies to Stephen Crane.)

You don’t send the letter. Remember: write the letter; don’t send it.

Or do you?

In this case, your words are so apropos, so carefully hewn, and your true desire is not to injure the injurious party—nay, in your heart you know your letter can edify, can, in fact, perform a necessary duty, is indeed an unselfish and disinterested gesture on your part, even a magnanimous one. For the recipient may be wholly unaware of his cowardly caddiness and may not wish to be caddy in the cowardly sense. He can reform. He will be grateful.

The letter must find its home. The rule must be broken.

You enlist the support of your intimates. Your family demurs. Your spouse, casting a dead-eye stare, dares to intimate you penned the letter for your own perverse pleasure.

Not so. If ever a letter was needed to guide, to inform, to edify… Ah, this one is the exception, surely? You plead your case. You fail.

And yet. This is the funny part. You do actually have to send a letter of sorts, for this CC has your stuff and you want your stuff back.

The body will be: This is to inform you…You like the quasi-legal tone. Between the hours of…So deliciously dictatorial.

Dispense with a salutation, eschewing “Dear”. There is nothing dear about him.

The letter is terse. In the history of epistles never breathed more pregnant a subtext. This is to inform you…

How to end said letter? Which valedictory: Regards? No, you feel no regard. With Malice Aforethought? Hmmm, perhaps not.

You cannot dispense with a closing of sorts. You never quite embraced that nihilist post post post modernist dictum nothing is all. Or was it all is nothing? Finally, you settle on Sincerely. After all, you are sincere in your disapprobation.

Following the dispatch of this terse missive, you write your blog post. Naturally, in second person since you’ve yearned to experiment ever since reading Pam Houston’s stellar story ‘How to Talk to a Hunter.” In your post you use the pronoun he—not in the he-is-meant-to-represent-both-genders nonsense you must reject as a confirmed feminist, but in the literal he, knowing that canny readers, in their inexorable search for CC’s identity, can now narrow possible offenders to a mere 3.45 billion candidates, give or take.

Ghost Novel Review: The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Publisher: Dover Thrift, 87 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

Perhaps you know the gist of the story: naïve, love-starved governess seeks countryside post teaching suspiciously angelic children who are wards of a handsome, mysterious, unavailable (emotionally as well as geographically) landowner.

The novella opens in a fireside gathering of friends eager to share ghost stories. The women are particularly thirsting for bloody and gory narratives. The host explains the author of the manuscript he holds is from his sister’s former governess, now dead. He then reads her tale. It seems the governess, after two interviews with a mysterious man, accepts the position and travels to Bly, an English country estate. The impressionable governess falls in love with the handsome uncle though he seems to want nothing to do with her or with his niece and nephew.

At Bly, the governess meets the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and her charges Miles and Flora. In no time, the governess finds herself caring deeply for the children even though she worries that something is amiss.

They are simply too perfect.

She has reason to worry. Miles’s school sends a letter expelling him for unspecified causes and Miles admits that he can be bad. Mrs. Grose believes a “too free” Peter Quint has corrupted the boy. Peter Quint was the valet and lover of the former governess Miss Jessel, both now dead. Soon, the governess is visited by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and comes to believe that they harbor evil intentions toward the children. However, no one else at Bly admits to witnessing the visitations. So, are these visitations a love-struck, neurotic governess’s imaginings, or is the worst kind of evil afoot?  

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What I thought:

The narrator governess (and even this telling is remote as we are supposedly reading a decades-old text whilst we gather round our host’s hearth) reminded me of Hamlet both in her prevarication and, to a lesser degree, in the consequences of her final decisions.

Like Hamlet, she poses question after question. Do I dare? More to the point, when and how? Are the ghosts’ intentions mischievous or malevolent? Are the apparitions real or imaginary? (In truth, the narrator never asks herself this one.) The children innocent or possessed? As a parent, whenever my children are too perfect, too quiet, too agreeable, that’s the time to investigate.  

Meanwhile, the reader has questions of her own. Why is the uncle so remote and unconcerned about his young relatives’ welfare? Can I trust this narrator? Is the governess nuts (an industry term), sexually repressed, or merely an unfortunate caught up in otherwordly machinations beyond her control? Even the title gives off sexual overtones among its many meanings. I remember seeing this novella in my seventh grade classroom and hearing titters from the (mostly) male students. Then there’s the ending—abrupt and ambiguous—no tidy epilogue bookend here to go with the fireside prologue at the beginning.

As far as recommendations go, if you are the kind of person who enjoys ambiguity and subtle psychological meanderings, then you should pick this one up. If, on the other hand, you are of the peas-are-peas-and-carrots-are-carrots persuasion, then this novel might drive you as crazy as some have professed James’ narrator to be. Aside from that, The Turn of the Screw belongs in the canon of ghost literature, written by a master 19th century writer, inspiring many ghost novelists to come. See Maybe This Time.

For me, it was interesting to read this ghost story with its troubled (interpret this word as you will) narrator and nuanced shadings immediately after perusing The Heart-Shaped Box, a book which leaves no doubt about the veracity of its storyteller or the evil of its demon-ghost.

 

Free Guide to Literary Agents Writing Contest

Attention Writers: FREE! Guide to Literary Agents Contest for Women’s Fiction

I don’t subscribe to many online media sources, but I am a faithful reader of Guide to Literary Agents. For writers aspiring to be published, I particularly recommend two of their ongoing series: Agent Interviews and How I Got My Agent. The former is informative and the latter is inspirational.

Recently, Guide to Literary Agents has begun sponsoring free writing contests based on genre. I was disconsolate when I discovered I had missed the deadline for the Paranormal Romance contest. Strangely enough, after much study on my own and conversations with experts at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year, I realized that my novel Moonlight Dancer is actually Women’s Fiction. Imagine my surprise this week when Guide to Literary Agents announced the free Women’s Fiction Contest. See the contest details here.

If you have a finished, unpublished book length Women’s Fiction novel, you can enter this contest by the deadline of June 26.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to attend to my entry…

Good luck, everyone!