American Hamlet: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Hamlet, the creation of Shakespeare, is one of the most forceful characters in modern literature. Near the beginning of the fifth act of the play bearing his name, the Prince is going into histrionics due to seeing his beloved Ophelia in death’s grip. He vows to do anything to avenge her, including eat a crocodile. His compatriots assume he is psychotic, and in response, Hamlet threatens, “Let Hercules himself do what he may, the cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”
Finally, the long-suffering dog has his day, and his story, in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This rather brilliant first novel from wordsmith David Wroblewski is based on the timeless tale of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. However, Edgar is a quite different animal from Hamlet, even though the broad concept of the plot remains. Four years ago, Edgar hit the New York Times bestseller list, and thirteen weeks later it became an Oprah Book Club pick. If you somehow missed it, it’s definitely still worth checking out.
Author Wroblewski grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, to parents who raised dogs. His book parallels his upbringing in that it is set in a small town in Wisconsin, and the story revolves around a family who breeds dogs. His reverence and respect for these animals shine through every page, as he details the tale of Gar and Trudy Sawtelle, and most of all, their rather extraordinary son.
Edgar is the couple’s only child, a miracle that arrived after several miscarriages that threatened his mother’s sanity and happiness. However, he happens to be mute, meaning he cannot speak or make any sounds. His hearing is unaffected, and to his grateful parents, “ it didn’t matter what in him was special and what ordinary. He was alive… compared to that, silence was nothing.”
Edgar develops his own language, using a mish-mash of American Sign Language and the family’s own private gestures, “a language in which everything important could be said.” He uses these gestures very effectively on the dogs that the family raises, and the story details the training technique that they use on the animals in length. This helps set the stage for the reader to understand how the Sawtelle dogs became unique and magical. “They spent long hours doing crazy walking, stays, releases, shared gaze drills… watching, listening, diverting a dog’s exuberance, not suppressing it.”
In a glowing review in the Washington Post, Ron Charles remarks on the specialness of these particular dogs: “…their demeanor, their character, ‘the way they look at you.’ Though never actually personified, they express the subtler qualities we associate with being human: judgment, even whimsy and, above all, a kind of intelligent presence and individuality that’s unnerving to strangers.”
At the beginning of the novel, after a rather lengthy and dull section detailing the family history, Edgar comes along. Trust me, loyal reader. The languid pace of the novel will pick up as you continue, so grit your teeth and power through the slow beginning. Edgar’s early life is idyllic. He fumbles through the care of his first litter under his father’s benevolent gaze, and all is well. Unfortunately this paradise is doomed to an abrupt destruction, in the form of Edgar’s uncle Claude, who has recently arrived from a tour of duty in Korea.
Gar gives his brother a place to stay, but things start to sour almost immediately: “Arguments arose, puzzling and disconcerting,” Wroblewski writes. “Though the details differed each time, Edgar got the idea that Claude and his father had slipped without their knowing it into some irresistible rhythm of taunt and reply whose references were too subtle or too private to decipher.”
After the “ferociously solitary” Claude repeatedly bickers with Gar, and Gar abruptly dies, Edgar knows but cannot prove Claude murdered his father.
In Ron Charles’ words: “Edgar’s world comes “permanently unsprung,” and he’s forced to flee into the forests of Wisconsin with three young dogs no more ready to live on their own than he is. It’s a long, dark journey for this little gang, a constant struggle against starvation and discovery set in a wilderness that Wroblewski describes in all its harrowing adventure and serendipity…. the real triumph is Edgar, this boy of rare sensitivity, virtue and resilience, carving out of air with his hands the rich language of his heart… The final section gathers like a furious storm of hope and retribution that brings young Edgar to a destiny he doesn’t deserve but never resists. It’s a devastating finale, shocking though foretold, that transforms the story of this little family into something grand and unforgettable. ”
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a rare jewel of a book, extraordinarily told. The plot is gripping, keeping the reader invested even if they have previously known no interest towards the subjects of mute boys, dog raising, or small towns in Wisconsin. However, the literary skill of the author is also apparent throughout the book in finely wrought sentences: “The sapphire sky above floated a small, lone cloud made orange by the sunrise,” or “Sparrows cartwheeled over the wet field like glazier’s points against the sky, and the swallows nesting in the eaves plunged into the morning air.”