Plot Summary: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home.
Though I don’t usually have the patience for adult books, I’ve been trying to read more of them. So I picked up the one with the most buzz, THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE. I had no plans to review it since it’s adult and not really a crossover, even though the protagonist is a boy. But, after finishing it, there were so many things running around in my head that I had to sit down and sort it out. It turned itself into a review. :)
Throughout most of this book, I was glued to the pages. The characters were rich and interesting, the setting was vivid, and the plot had me on the edge of my seat at times. This is one of the best examples of multiple viewpoints I’ve seen, especially in a story where there’s clearly one main character: Edgar. The title even tells us that it’s his story. The additional perspectives added a rich layer to the plot, which is no easy feat.
The prose is beautiful, disguising the somewhat slow pacing. And the dogs were amazing. I’m not a huge dog person, but I loved reading about the Sawtelle dogs. Also, Edgar is a great main character. I loved following him through the story, watching him grow and learn, and finally become a stronger person because of it.
The ending, however...
As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below. Major ones.
This book has a heavy parallel to Hamlet. Some of the names are even similar. And what happens at the end of Hamlet? Everyone dies. Well, pretty much the same thing happens at the end of EDGAR SAWTELLE. But was it the right ending for Edgar’s story?
If Wroblewski set out to write a complete retelling of Hamlet, then he succeeded. But at what cost? I think he sacrificed his story in order to stay true to someone else’s, and that just killed the whole experience for me.
Wroblewski led us through Edgar’s story, made us care about him, gave him growth and understanding so that he knows how to do the right thing, even when there’s high risk. And it was all natural and realistic. That’s amazing! He created a hugely inspiring character in Edgar. Who wouldn’t want to find that kind of strength within themselves?
But then, almost as soon as Edgar figures it all out, he is killed by Claude, the person who killed Edgar’s father. Edgar even suspects Claude is up to no good, yet he turns his back to him? I realize he’s still a kid, but this kid has just grown leaps and bounds. I can’t believe that he’d say “I know what Claude is up to” one minute, then turn his back to him the next minute. It cheapens all of Edgar’s growth, and makes his death seem contrived and senseless.
Another thing that bothered me was the manner of Claude’s death. If the ghost of Gar could kill Claude, why did he wait so long to do it? Granted, the barn was on fire so it was easier, but surely a determined ghost could have taken other opportunities. So why didn’t he? Again, seems contrived and a bit too convenient.
Trudy’s situation, however, had me reeling in shock. She’s the only one who survives with no physical injuries, and yet she’s the most injured of all. Her husband is gone, her son is gone, even her future with the dogs is taken away. She is punished so far beyond anyone else that I’m stunned. Being a wife and mother myself, there is no way I’d be able to survive losing my husband and sons. Especially if I had to watch my sons being taken away from me, knowing there was nothing I could do about it. There would be nothing left of me except a hollow shell – that is, if I hadn’t killed myself in the process of trying to save my sons. Trudy did nothing to deserve such a fate! Why should she suffer more than Claude, who had taken her entire world away from her?
The last thing that bothered me was the dogs. In the end, Essay takes the dogs who will follow, meets up with Forte, and they go off together. But go off where? To Henry? To grow wild and forget that amazing connection they’ve made with humans? It doesn’t make sense. The connection with humans is what makes them Sawtelle dogs. Take that away and they’re ordinary. If Essay’s choice was to show that she can make choices on her own, then it turns the whole story around so it’s not about Edgar. It’s about her and the other dogs. But the book is called THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, not THE STORY OF THE SAWTELLE DOGS, so that didn’t make sense either.
I guess what really bothered me the most was that the author stuck so closely to Hamlet. I have no problem with re-tellings. I love them, actually. But a writer still needs to stay true to his own story, not someone else’s. When re-telling someone else’s story, the writer has already taken something that belonged to someone else and made it his own. So, if his story doesn’t fit with the original, why stick with it? To stay true to someone else’s story is easier. But easy isn’t always right, just as Edgar figured out. The writer needs to find his own path, which is much harder, scarier, and frustrating. But, in the end, it’s worth it. For everyone.