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?