Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Talk about a breakthrough novel.

I haven't read such a good book in a long time. I was COMPLETELY hooked on this book, and I would put it at the top of your reading list if you haven't read it yet. The book I am talking about is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I never made the connection while I was reading it, but I discovered that this novel is a retelling of Hamlet. This adds even more interest to the novel in terms of discussing and dissecting it.

Quick Synopsis: Edgar Sawtelle is a mute, and only child, living with his parents on a farm in Wisconsin. His parents raise dogs, Sawtelle dogs, for a living. These dogs are special and have been meticulously breeded for two generations to create the perfect dog. Enter Edgar's uncle, his father's brother, Claude. Claude has just got out of prison and is staying with the family. Fights between the brothers ensue, and mysteriously, one day Edgar's father Gar dies in the barn. Edgar strongly believes that Claude is the perpetrator as he flees the scene.

More synopsis but it might spoil... While coping with the death, Edgar's mother Trudy asks for Claude's help one night when the dogs get in a brutal fight. Claude ends up staying at the house, soon becoming Trudy's lover. Edgar stages a scene between the dogs where they reenact the murder, and Claude turns ghost white, confirming his suspicions. Edgar's fury rises, and he raises a pitchfork to kill Claude. Unfortunately, he has struck the wrong man, and their vet dies instead. Scared half to death, Edgar flees the scene, running away on the spot with three of his dogs. Edgar survives in the woods for months, stealing food from anyone he can. He finally seeks refuge with a man named Henry who doesn't ask many questions. Edgar regains his health there and eventually makes it back home to see his mother and confront Claude.

The ending: Edgar leaves a note at his home that he will return the next day. Claude hides this note from Trudy, hoping to eliminate Edgar since he knows his dirty secret. Claude conspires with the vet's son Glen (who is a police officer) to find Edgar and question him, since he is the one responsible for his father's death. Glen corners Edgar in the barn and tries to knock him out with ether. Edgar throws a noxious substance into Glen's eyes as a defense mechanism, and Glen is instantly blinded. With the ether knocked to the floor, it hits a lamp which lights the entire barn on fire. Edgar frantically tries to save his father's documents (which is everything his father and grandfather lived for to create the Sawtelle dogs). Claude enters to appear that he is helping Edgar, but in reality, he fills a syringe with poison and stabs it into Edgar's neck, just like his father. While waiting for the poison to kick in, Claude waits, but he waits too long. The barn fills with smoke and they both die. The dogs escape the barn and run into the wild.

End of spoilers!

The novel had me curious the entire time. I wanted to see what would happen to Edgar. Wroblewski had me invested in the character. The character is extremely different from traditional characters in literature as well because he literally can't speak (which makes his last name even more ironic--SawTELLe). He sees something and can't find ways to communicate this to others. He never really does share it either.

I love that the novel is broken down into parts or sections, each charting a significant event that occurs that will change the fate of the characters. The chapters are Forte's Children (background information and dog history), Three Griefs (Gar's death, death of his family as Claude replaces father, and discovery of dead father's ghost/secret), What Hands Do (Edgar accidentally kills vet), Chequamegon (Edgar flees and lives with Henry), and Poison (Edgar returns and is killed, along with Claude). Very fitting titles.

I really enjoyed seeing the relationship build between Edgar and his dog Almondine. They were raised together, like siblings, and they could communicate even though they really had no means to. Edgar would sign to the dogs, and they seemed to understand what he wanted. I thought that that would be hard--as a dog trainer, Edgar can't even yell or speak to the dogs, but they seemed to understand his demands (even through signing). Almondine and Edgar separate, however, when Edgar runs away. SPOILER: Edgar discovers Almondine's grave when he returns. I wanted to cry. That, to me, was the saddest part of the novel, aside from the obvious sad parts, deaths of major characters. END OF SPOILER.

Especially now since I have a new puppy, I really started to connect with dog owners and relationships that humans have with dogs. To say the least, it was a timely novel for me. I understand how connected you can be to a dog and the difficulties in communication (and he had more than I do!). I understand how crucial it is to breed a wonderful, obedient dog, and I appreciate the means that the Sawtelles went to in order to create that. I was very interested to read and learn about HOW to breed. That fascinated me.

The setting also made me feel connected to the novel. I felt calm and at peace, as the setting lies on a rural farm in Wisconsin. The slow way of life, the old country farm house was inviting. It was a nice place to escape to and an easy one to visualize.

This is a book that stayed with me. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it. When I see book covers and pictures of boys with dogs, I feel a sense of melancholy. I feel Edgar's character and feel his ultimate love and loss. When someone mentions the book, I feel passion and excitement. I want to discuss this with others, but I don't know anyone who's read it! Someone connect! Someone read it! Someone discuss!

This would be a GREAT film to make into a movie. I truly hope that they do. The story is classic (connecting with Shakespeare but putting a modern twist on it), and it's extremely engaging. Overall, I can't stress how impressed I am with the novel. It is definitely a MUST READ.

So what do you think of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Harvesting the Heart

I am still on my Jodi Picoult rampage, and I am destined to finish all of her books by the end of the year. (I'm making some decent head-way...) Anyway, my newest accomplishment is her second novel, Harvesting the Heart. This novel, I found, was a little bit different from her other novels. Instead of creating multiple characters and getting insde their heads, it focused mainly on two characters and their romantic relationship (and struggles) together.

Her other novels seem to focus around a central, controversial issue. A trial is usually involved. Multiple characters give their side of the story through their point of view. Families are split in this crucial issue.

But, Harvesting the Heart is slightly different from her normal formula. This could either draw or repel readers, but I think most readers like to find out for themselves.

The controversial issue in this novel, even though it's not the BIGGEST focus, is abortion. The protagonist, Paige, has an abortion during her senior year of high school. She has many good reasons to do so. She doesn't want to be tied down to the small town outside of Chicago that she was raised in. She's not sure that her boyfriend is really the one who is best for her, and she knows that she will marry him if she has the baby. She wants to go to college to pursue her budding artistic talent, which she wouldn't be able to if she had the baby. She wants to travel. She is not mature enough or financially stable to raise this baby. She still lives with her father too.

So, Paige has the abortion and runs. Paige has learned to literally "run" from her problems because that's what her mother did when she was younger. Her mother ran from her family and never spoke to them again.

Later on, once Paige becomes pregnant with her husband's, Nicholas's, child, she starts to remember small things about her mother which makes her want to find her now more than ever, especially since she is becoming a mother soon herself.

Paige relocates to Boston where she meets her future husband Nicholas, a prize of a husband who is going to school to be a doctor. He is from an affluent family, was on the crew team, is stunningly gorgeous, and has traveled the world. Even though he is much older, they still seem to hit it off. They are physically drawn to one another which a passion that excites them. When Nicholas takes Paige home to visit his parents, the Prescott's, they do not like her. Nicholas stops talking to them, they get married, and they live estranged.

A couple years after the marriage, Paige becomes pregnant and starts to fear that she will not be a good mother. She has still not pursued her art career (they had to put her career on hold while they paid for Nicholas to go to med school), and she feels too young to be a mother. She feels like she is destined to fail at motherhood because of her previous abortion AND because she never had a mother herself. Paige still has withheld her abortion secret from Nicholas.

Unlike other novels that express the glory of motherhood, Harvesting the Heart captures the opposite. Picoult shows the struggle that some mothers have. They don't feel like they know how to do these chores, they lose their independence and freedom, they feel worthless, etc. Paige truly makes you feel her struggle. Meanwhile, Nicholas is swept away in his job (being an amazing heart surgeon) and escapes to the hospital often so that he has little responsibility for the child. This creates arguments between the couple, and they grow farther and father apart.

One day, Paige accidentally drops the baby on his head, and she feels that she almost killed him. She feels like she is an unfit mother. When Nicholas comes home, they get in a huge argument about how Paige isn't a responsible mother, and she runs. She takes off in her car and doesn't know where she's heading.

Paige ends up running to Chicago where she visits her father and ex-boyfriend. She then figures out that she really wants to visit her mother, and tracks her down to live in North Carolina as she is a horse trainer.

Meanwhile, Nicholas is furious and cuts off Paige's credit cards. When Paige calls, Nicholas is violently mean and angry and refuses to get back together with her. He struggles with finding childcare and eventually must turn to his mother for help. His mother accepts with open arms.

Paige travels to North Carolina to visit her mother, and it's not what she expected. Her mother is nice and she stays there a while as Paige tries to figure her out. Her mother didn't want to be tied down (which is what Paige is wondering herself), but there is a major difference in them that makes Paige leave and return home: Paige cares too much about her child to leave him alone without her.

When Paige returns, Nicholas is a brooding maniac, allowing her to sleep on the porch and yelling obsene things at her. Not knowing what to do, Paige follows him around at work and eventually follows him to his parents' house to see her child. Surprisingly, Mrs. Prescott welcomes her in with open arms. She explains that she didn't like her at first because she seemed to be submissive and to have a weak spine, but this has proven her wrong. Paige moves in with them which makes Nicholas even more furious. Paige does anything she can to win him back. Her biggest move is getting a job at the hospital where she shadows patients and draws pictures of them which become an instant hit. They are displayed all around the hospital which surrounds Nicholas with his wife.

Nicholas struggles the most with Paige's abortion secret, which she reveals to him when she returns. Nicholas feels like he can't trust his wife. She is a stranger who abandons her family. Paige tries her hardest to show him that he is wrong, but that is an extremely difficult thing to prove.

The ending seemed very open as if we were to decide what would happen to the couple. I assume that they will be together because we have watched their struggle and slow acceptance of one another, but it's not crystal clear. Maybe all relationships aren't crystal clear, so this actually makes their situation more realistic. Who knows?

I thought the title was almost too cute. With Nicholas being a heart surgeon and relationship problems, it was accurate on many levels. Hearing about the politics of the hospital and the hierarchy was interesting (as they hosted dinner parties and Paige felt worthless). I liked hearing descriptions of open-heart surgeries and how it feels to literally hold a life in your hands. I'm so removed from the medical world that I find it interesting to read about because it's so foreign to me. (Knock on wood).

The novel alternates between the two in the couple. I really liked seeing both perspectives of the relationship because I felt like I could see each side of the problem. I feel like I sided more with Paige because, to me, Nicholas seemed irrational at times. Yes, that's a hard thing to deal with, but he just seemed to be too pouty about it. At least hear her out. I started to get really frustrated with his character towards the end. I just wanted to yell, "GET OVER IT!" at him, but I really couldn't. I could just keep reading.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I learned some things about horseback riding and open-heart surgeries. I learned about the struggles of being a young mother (or a mother in general) and about relationships in general. There is a lot to be learned here. It's a clear dissection of a relationship, and discussing it with friends would truly be an interesting conversation.

So what do you think of Harvesting the Heart?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is an amazing writer. I was first captivated by a short story he wrote (which I highly recommend), "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian to See Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." Incredible story. Then I read a bunch of his poems, my favorite being "Buffalo Bill." Powerful poem.

Alexie is most noted for his writings on Native Americans. He has different mediums of conveying stories about them and identifying their current struggles. I am fascinated by how honest and revealing he is. He is truly an educator in this format.

Today, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel targeted at young adults. It is a novel that includes pictures, since the protagonist is an aspiring cartoonist, which help depict the plot as it unfolds. The pictures are another excellent way of conveying the progonist's feelings and describing (and literally picturing) new characters as they enter each scene.

For struggling readers, this is a great book. It has graphic novel features but is mostly text. The chapters are short and the narration isn't over-the-top. The narration is conversational and to-the-point. He actually has a pretty solid flow as he reads. He uses a lot of repetition to show how the protagonist is coping and what he observes in certain scenes. He'll vary longer paragraphs to quick, choppy ones. Longer text is broken apart by lists, pictures, dialogue, or sound effects. It's really easy to get through.

I would LOVE to teach this to an older middle school group (8th grade) or early high school group (9th or 10th grade). There is so much to discuss in this novel, and I think the students would REALLY connect with the plot. This novel would also really appeal to boys for many reasons. There is a male narrator. He plays sports, and there is a lot of description towards the end about his basketball team. He is involved with a girl and honestly (almost too honestly) describes his thoughts and feelings about it.

However, I would also be skeptical to teach it because of some content issues. There is a lot of talk about sex and maturation, using vulgar words. The book is almost too honest to the point where a school might have hesitations passing it. There are minor swear words (ass, fricking, fag, etc). The protagonist's father is an alcoholic, which could actually be a good thing to talk about in a mature classroom environment. But the group reading it would have to be mature enough to discuss these topics and not get too hung up on these small things.

The plot of the novel is interesting, I think anyway. The 9th grade narrator, Arnold, is confronted by a white teacher (since he lives and goes to school on his reservation) and is told that the only way for him to excel in this life is to leave the reservation. The reservation is depicted as having tons and tons of drunks that are poor and struggling. It's a vicious cycle. Arnold takes his advice and goes to a neighboring all-white school which introduces a plethora of issues and problems. He is basically outcasted from the reservation and is not understood by peers at first. He slowly makes friends, and even a girlfriend, through his wit and charm, and by being an incredible basketball player.

Along the way, Arnold struggles with getting rides to school, being accepted by white peers who tease him for being Indian, having other students accept his poverty, taking care of his drunk father, dealing with deaths in his family, losing his best friend Rowdy (who was angry that he abandoned him and the reservation), and then finally, playing his former school and best friend in basketball.

SPOILER: Arnold ends up beating Rowdy and his school, which was formerly undefeated, and soon rekindles his friendship with Rowdy after his sister passes, which Rowdy blames on Arnold. After Arnold left to go to his new school, his sister ran away with another Native American to live in a trailer in Montana. The trailer catches on fire during a party, and they are too drunk to awaken. The novel ends with Rowdy and Arnold playing basketball, finally understanding that Rowdy is meant to stay at the reservation but Arnold is meant to leave on go on to bigger things.


I find it so sad and disturbing to see what has become of reservations and Native Americans. Stereotypes are terrible. It seems like they're coping for a lot of crap that we have put them through over many, many years. To write about it, from experiencing it like Alexie has, is interesting for someone to read about who has not a full grasp of what it is like. And for this, I think it's even more imperative for teens to read. It's good for them to understand so much about cultures they don't fully know about, especially cultures that exist within our own country. Knowledge helps kill ignorance, and maybe this novel could bring that one step closer!

Personally, I loved the integration of pictures. It's different than most books. I also loved how brutally honest the narrator is. He swears, he talks about his sexuality, and he paints his culture accurately (or so I can only speculate). It's refreshing. It clearly sounds like a teenage boy, and I think a lot of high school students could appreciate that. And, he's funny. Very funny.

I recommend it, but I would think about who I was going to recommend it to. Some parents might not want their kids reading it, and I can see why. Some might not care. Some of the language and material may not be new to some, but it may be to others. Personally, I liked it and would recommend it, but I have to put that warning out there just in case.

Alexie is so strong in creative titles that make them sound so interesting that you just have to read them. Anything by Alexie is a joy to read. And this definitely makes the list.

What do you think of The Absolultey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?