The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Publisher: Harper Collins, 562 pages
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 business—a 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 household—helping 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 raindrops—thousands—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:
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.
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.