I don’t know which is more annoying: when Oprah picks a lousy book, or when she picks a good one. Many Mitch Alboms have been made wealthy and famous by her divine anointment, which ensures that you never have to write a good book again… or to begin with.
Now, increased public exposure to terrific literature is never a bad thing, but for some book lovers, the Oprah’s Book Club seal is a vile crucifix that sears one’s flesh on contact. People might avoid a great piece of writing when they otherwise would have adored it, often because it’s commercially hyped to high heaven or what have you.
I’m telling you with the utmost conviction that — for this book — you shouldn’t let the Oprah thing repel you. Yes, I know the stamp is there on the cover and you may not like that, but if any of the following makes Edgar Sawtelle sound interesting to you (though I’ll likely fail to do it justice), go make yourself among this book’s many, many deserved readers.
Something Rotten in the State of Wisconsin
Edgar Sawtelle, for most of David Wroblewski’s story, is an early teenager without the ability to speak. He helps his father, Gar, and his mother, Trudy, run a farm for breeding and training their own vastly intelligent dogs.
The Sawtelle farm is a pastoral island unto itself, and contentedly functioning. But then, one summer, Gar’s charismatic brother, Claude, makes his appearance. Tensions eventually build between the brothers and combust, leading to a scuffle that sends Claude packing.
Not long afterward, Edgar watches his father suddenly collapse in death one day in the workshop. Only a few months after the funeral, Claude reappears and begins assuming Gar’s place on the farm.
If this sounds like a retelling of Hamlet, that’s because it is, and you know exactly what happened to Edgar’s father and why. And you’re left wondering how, if at all, young Edgar will avenge his death.
Artfully Dodged Bullets
So many ways this book could have gone wrong… and didn’t.
First, it’s primarily a story of a boy and his dogs. A mute boy and his dogs. We are in dangerous Hallmark Channel territory, here. Thankfully, Wroblewski’s treatment of this relationship is honest and touching without being maudlin or emotionally manipulative — probably because it is, above all things, honest.
Second, the Hamlet retelling. Rural Wisconsin seems the least compatible setting for it, but the universally intriguing premise is merely the skeleton around which the skin and sinews of a whole other story seem to pulse. Wroblewski’s plot and characters aren’t slaves to the original play, so Edgar Sawtelle feels lovingly inspired by Shakespeare while feeling new, inventive, and even at times unpredictable.
The most rewarding aspect of the Shakespearean influence is that with the depth of insight you get into Sawtelle’s characters, you can think back on the original Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, etc., and they’re revealed to you in fascinating new dimensions. That, for me, is how you know when one of these retellings is successful.
Dog Day After Gloom
The Sawtelle dogs, themselves, are a wonder. They’re extraordinarily intelligent mutts both born and bred ultimately to “choose for themselves.” While this doesn’t make sense in the beginning, we end up seeing just what it means for a rigidly trained canine to truly make a decision for itself (and does anyone else feel a Hamlet nod here?).
The novel’s knowledge and passion for dogs and dog training is also encyclopedic; the passages devoted to training theory and regimen will be fascinating for many, perhaps a bore for others. Keep this in mind if you happen to be one of those Cat Persons.
The novel plods a bit, especially in its emotionally damp first act. The other contributer to Sawtelle’s lengthiness is its insistence on detail. But it turns out Wroblewski has a lyrical gift for it; even when you feel he should be moving things along at a better clip, you almost don’t care because you get enveloped by passages like
The shadows of the apple trees lay stretched across the grass. The forest across the road, an undulating scrim of gray. High in the air, raindrops descended into light, curtained by the breeze into willow shapes that swayed across the yard and back into the night.
That, by the way, is a moment before Edgar’s rain-soaked encounter with his dead father — five of the most breathtaking pages I’ve read in a long time.
On that note, some might balk at the novel’s shifts into magical-realism, which may seem out of place in a story that’s otherwise grounded in a Steinbeckian earthiness. But like the detail-heavy sequences, these fantastical elements are done so well that I couldn’t help but enjoy them as they came to me.
The book is an honest-to-God achievement. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if not for its length, I could easily see The Story of Edgar Sawtelle being taught in high schools for all the right reasons.