A tale reminiscent of "Hamlet" that also celebrates the alliance between humans and dogs follows speech-disabled Wisconsin youth Edgar, who bonds with three yearling canines and struggles to prove that his sinister uncle is responsible for his father's death.
The first sings of trouble arrive when Edgar's uncle Claude comes back to the family home, freshly out of prison. A hard drinker, he and his older, more responsible brother Gar constantly fight and bicker, and Claude leaves after a physical altercation. Things take a tragic turn when Gar dies very suddenly while Edgar helplessly looks on. Shortly after, Trudy falls very ill, leaving Edgar with all the responsibilities, and though he struggles to make things work, a serious incident forces them to call Claude to help care for the dogs. To Edgar's utter dismay, Trudy and Claude quickly become lovers, even as Edgar has reasons to suspects his uncle of murder. Things go from bad to much, much worse, until Edgar has no choice but to flee the farm along with a number of dogs from his litter. Together they embarks on a long and difficult journey, during which the fugitives must hide away in the woods and are constantly on the brink of starvation. Edgar's journey with the dogs constitutes the better part of the second half of the novel, and seemed at times overly long. But with hindsight, I now feel that it was necessary to establish just how deeply the boy and his dogs come to rely on each other while Edgar encourages the dogs to make their own choices.
While I was initially disappointed with the denouement, it also made the tale that much more poignant, and revealed, if there was still any lingering doubt, that these dogs were not mere companions, but characters in their own right. I should say that I decided I liked this book before I even read the first line, simply because I knew that dogs were prominent in the story, and in that sense I was amply gratified. This is the kind of tale that stays with you and leaves countless affecting moments to savour long after the last words have been read.
This book garnered a lot of attention last fall when Oprah selected it for her book club. I can see why it merited such attention. The writing is beautiful. It tells the story of the Sawtelle family and their own special breed of dogs. Trudy and Gar's son Edgar is born mute, but as he grows they develop their own sign-language - one that their unusually intelligent dogs also pick up. But when Gar's brother Claude returns to the farm and Gar dies soon afterward, Edgar is left struggling. Bad things happen. Edgar flees into the wilderness. Etc.
Unfortunately, this is the sort of book that makes the whole literary fiction genre look bad. The writing is beautiful, yes, but it's also overwritten. Half the book could have been edited away and the story would have remained the same. It took two-hundred pages for any genuine plot momentum to begin. When Edgar fled the farm, the story became much more interesting to me - his survival, Henry, and the tension leading up to the ending.
And then the ending happened. Um, what? I can understand wanting to make the ending non-cliche, but Wroblewski's ending is heavily contrived and completely unsatisfying. I didn't expect a happy ending, but the ending he wrote is just stupid. It made the entire 562-pages feel like a complete waste.
Sorry. Pretty writing does not make up for lousy storytelling.
If one is going to attempt a retelling of Hamlet, perhaps the only way to get away with it is when it's a first book. I don't understand why Wroblewski chose to use the Hamlet plot so plainly, yet strip out most of the nuances of the original. Plots come easy, compared to the task of world- and character-building, so this is a situation where the author decision seems to be one of laziness.
My specific gripes about the Hamlet plot (including several spoilers) are these:
Edgar lacks several Hamlet qualities, most notably a philosophical bent. Much is made in the original to show Hamlet's indecision and moral wrangling with the uncertainties of life and death. By not acting quickly, he propagates a worse disaster. There is no interlude of feigned madness in Edgar, only a recalcitrant period following his father's death that can be seen as normal teen-aged behavior.
Several missing tertiary characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern providing a second level of betrayal, or a Fortinbras poised as an external power threatening the kingdom/kennel.
Ophelia/Almondine seems badly mis-handled--the relationship can obviously only be so complicated given that Almondine is a dog. When the blow-up finally happens, Edgar pushes her away out of jealously instead of the complex mix of motivations for Hamlet. Simply put, there isn't a great "Get thee to a nunnery" speech here.
The ending strays from the source so much as to make less of the whole. Claude should have died by Edgar's hands--why would the ghost of Gar haunt Edgar, only to take the final action that dooms Claude? Trudy gets off far too easily--she isn't even allowed the understanding of what happened, since she doesn't witness the events in the barn. Glen Papineau comes out only blinded, apparently unaware of Claude's treachery--so why bother with him in the first place?
Should be a part of any high school library, and perhaps considered by the language arts department for use in instruction, particularly since teens need 20th and 21st century alternatives in literature.
“Almondine” chapters are especially well written, but after reading them, I realized they didn't make sense (a dog would know that the woman was pregnant).
Ignorance of sign language — crucial to the "message" and its misunderstanding in the denouement.
Misuse of association with origins of seeing-eye dogs
Raising dogs in rural Wisconsin, but apparently training only for basic companion obedience. Created breed, sold (“placed”) only as yearlings for $1500 in 1960s.
Characters ignore obvious clues (e.g., brother had been imprisoned for murder).
Best part is Henry.
When I first decided to read this book, I had no idea it was an Oprah selection (I probably would not have read it if I had known, since I tend to avoid her selections.) The other reason was it was a story that involved dogs, and I love dogs having a big Golden Retriever myself. I didn't know much else about the book, but then I began to read it had very mixed reviews. Well, now that I've finished it, I know why.
This book started out very well. In fact, I was so moved by the storyline in the first 40 pages, I was sobbing twice, it tugged at my heartstrings so strongly. The story of Edgar's parents and their early trials and tribulations before he is born, and then when he was born mute, and how they dealt with it was a pleasure to read. Their beloved Almondine becomes Edgar's nursemaid in a way, taking care of him, being his voice from the time they first brought him home from the hospital. All the while, the backdrop of their being dog breeders of the famous Sawtelle dogs was fascinating to read about. Plus, in the majority of the book, Edgar is 14 - the same age as my teenaged son. I could so relate! I really loved it all - until Claude came into the picture.
Claude is Edgar's uncle, and this is where the whole Hamlet storyline comes in to the book. Claude kills his brother, Gar (Edgar's father) who then comes to him on a rainy night outside in the form of a dripping wet ghost. Edgar, who can only speak by signing, communicates with his father by signing, as does his father's ghost back to him. It was an eerie but moving moment, and so begins Edgar's teenaged quest to avenge his father and get rid of Claude, who also had designs on his mother, Trudy. I was really disappointed in Trudy. She started off well, I admired her and her fortitude through her heartaches, but she just seemed to give up and let Claude into her life (and bed) and after that we never really got into her head much until close to the end of the book. What was she thinking of Edgar the whole time he had run away? Wasn't she going out of her mind? Her character started out so well, but then totally fizzled, and wasn't realistic anymore. We lost her.
Edgar runs away with three of the dogs he's training and for almost 2 months he's on foot, trying to make his way to this Commune in Canada. One of the dogs, Tinder, gets injured (I was so sad for Tinder!) and Edgar finds help and lives with this nice, but melancholy, lonely guy, Henry who has a house in the woods. This interlude was okay, but dragged at parts, but it was Edgar's reawakening that he must return, he can't run away any longer. But, I'm still not really sure of what triggered his reawakening, but it was moving when he leaves with the dogs. The dogs were the best part of this book - and Edgar of course. I really liked Edgar a lot, he's special.
But, by the last part of the book when Edgar returns I was really getting fed up with the storyline and didn't like the way it was going. Too many disappointments. I loved Almondine, and what happens to her was so unfair! I would have cried, if I hadn't been so mad. And then the whole crazy ending (trying not to give away spoilers here) in the barn and the final outcome - I could spit, it was all so drawn out and disappointing! No fair! Yes, I know, I know, he was following the story of Hamlet, but did he have to be so faithful to it? Couldn't he make it a happy ending? I felt like I had invested so much into this story with wonderful, sweet Edgar and the dogs and the training - all to have it pulled out from under me!
This book started out so well, but then in the last 250 pages it changed so and become one disappointment after another. It almost seemed as if it was written by a different person in the 2nd half. What happened?? Read it at your own risk, or just read the first 300 pages and leave it there.
I'm rating this a 3.5, but if it had kept the same tone as the first half, it would have been a 5.
Wroblewski does show promise.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is not a good book. It is too long. Its simplistic parallel with Hamlet is merely a distraction—leading the reader to go on a scavenger hunt for the references, and wondering where to find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There was no point to be made outside of those set forth in Hamlet, so there was no need for the re-telling of the story, as the original is much more profound without being so ponderous. It would be a better use of your time to skip Edgar and re-read Hamlet.
"All her life she had found whatever she had been asked to find and there had only been one thing ever. Now he was truly lost, gone away, crossed into another world, perhaps, some land unknown to her from which he could not return. The closet was as puzzled as she, the bed silent on the question. It was not out of the question that he had learned the secret of flight, and the window was not too small for him to pass through. There, sleeping on his bed at night, she would be the first to see when he returned. Old as she was, she still had questions to ask him, things to show him. She worried about him. She needed to find him, whole or changed, but know in any case, and she would taste the salt of his neck."
This is a long novel with a mysterious plot and an ending that will make many readers feel cheated. Despite the less than fulfilling ending, I highly recommend this book for anyone who has ever had a special relationship with a dog.
So I stuck it out, and now over 600 pages later, I find myself totally befuzzled. To be completely honest: I feel like I do when exposed to a certain relative of mine; she can talk to you for an hour or two about absolutely nothing…. I’m sure you have one in your life – a person who can turn a 5-minute trip to Wal-Mart into an hour story.
I wish I had liked it more. It is often referred to as "Hamlet of Wisconsin" and I suppose the part of the plot involving a ghostly father and a an uncle hopping into Mum's bed justifies the comparison, but frankly, when it comes to Hamlet, I missed Ophelia.
Wroblewski can write prose. He uses some terrific phrases and writes a fine description, but I found the pacing very herky-jerky and the character motivations oddly opaque. Several plot lines seemed to fade into nothing (the prophetic old lady for example), and a number of the hinge-events seemed overly sentimental and a little maudlin.
As a dog lover, I was at first charmed by the detail the author puts into the descriptions of dog behavior and psychology, but page after page after page of it inevitably got in the way. I'm surprised an editor didn't ask Wroblewski to choose between writing a dog training/breeding manual and a novel.
As I said, I think Wroblewski knows how to turn a phrase (otherwise the book would have earned only 2 stars), I'm afraid in the end I just wasn't interested enough in the characters, or what happened to them, and the fact I enjoyed the brief passages written from Almondine's (one of the dogs) point of view more than anything else, isn't a good sign.
I bought the hard back and read it about a year later. This time I slowed down to savor Wroblewski's prose, especially his descriptions of the Wisconsin countryside, the careful way he develops his characters, his fearlessness in facing the tragedy that we know is coming. Two other remarkable aspects of this book are his ability to convey what is going on in the mind of a special dog, Almondine, and his ability to portray supernatural encounters in ways that made them truly believable. I listened to an interview he did with Oprah in which we said he spent 15 years writing this book. It shows. This is a well-crafted work.
The plot and its conflicts are complex as a grief-stricken Edgar struggles to prove his uncle’s role in his father's death. When his plan backfires, Edgar take offs into the wilderness, fighting for survival with three dogs in tow. But his need to face his father's murderer pulls Edgar toward home:
“He’d left in confusion, but his return was clarifying. So much of what had been obscure while he faced away was now evident. … So much of the world was governed by chance. … Life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive. You swam in a river of chance and coincidence. You clung to the happiest accidents—the rest you let float by. … Some things were certain—they had already happened—but the future would not be divined. … The future was no ally. A person had only his life to barter with” (p. 458).
The author’s style and setting reveal breathtaking scenes---the woods throughout the seasons, an iconic American barn, an ominous vision in the falling rain--create a mesmerizing family saga that explores the limits of the spoken word. And—spoiler alert—as with Hamlet and other Shakespearian tragedies, we are left with only a witness in the end.
My hope is that this will win the 2009 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, whose criteria are to “illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence, demonstrated by compelling, high quality writing and/or illustration; the integrity of the work as a whole; its proven or potential appeal to a wide range of teen readers.”
1. It is way too long, in the wrong ways. The very long section wherein Edgar runs away from home seemed almost totally unnecessary and did not move the story forward
2. Claude is drawn in a unidimensional way, as a nefarious sociopath. That Trudy, who is such a strong, intelligent and insightful woman, could be drawn to him and not see through him just didn't wash for me.
3. Without revealing too much, it was unnecessarily tragic
4. The book did not break any new ground, nor did it seem particularly insightful. In fact, I liked Old Yeller better.
I just don't get all the excitement about this book...except that it is about dogs, and everybody loves dogs.
The rest of the story was out-of-control, in-your-face excellent. I was immediately engrossed and captivated by the story of the mute boy who grew up surrounded by dogs.
The descriptions of the idyllic life on the dog farm and the wilderness into which Edgar escapes after the death of his father are mesmerizing; they made me feel as if I had entered another world. This is a novel that will stay with me a long time and one I heartily recommend.