The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

By David Wroblewski

So Book Club was last night, but the conversation about the book was seriously lacking–mostly because only four of us showed and only two of us read the book and there were kittens to look at. Kittens are very cute, but not particularly intellectual, and we ended up off-topic (I share the blame for this) on a rant about homeowners associations, our collective ones in particular. Tom maintains that there is enough betrayal, pathos, and humanity in an HOA to warrant a 38th (or 41st, as it your wont) Shakespearean play. The upshot of all this is that we ate great Thai food and cupcakes, and I get to wax philosophical about the book without having to take into consideration anyone else’s opinion–an opportunity I always enjoy.

I bought this book last Thursday and read it in a few days (with effort–I hate not having read the book before book club). I really liked it. I mean, I really liked it. First of all, I was relieved that it was the choice that won; I had already read The Professor and the Madman and I absolutely did not care to read Three Fallen Women, based partly on the cover and partly on the fact that the author’s friend was one of the reviewers and mostly because I am sick of woman angst stories. We’ve had a lot of them in Book Club lately. By lately I mean this past year or so. Besides, someone in the group who had read the book gave it a thumbs up. I cast my vote and was rewarded.

It doesn’t say so on the jacket, but I must have read somewhere (perhaps in the email for what book to choose) that the novel was based on Hamlet. Was it ever! But there is “based on” and there is “re-telling” and this was a re-telling, down to character names and fates. The setting of the book is fairly modern, with most of the critical action taking place in the 1970s, but it feels very old. I think that’s because there is quite a lot of detail provided about how the person who built the Sawtelle farm had to personally clear out a plot of land and build it himself. I mean, he painted the barn with blood. I don’t think it was his blood, but I’m pretty sure that even in the 1970s people had other materials to use. Hell, even in the 1910s paint was being mass-marketed, at least in Boston, if Silas Lapham is to be believed. It’s crude but effective, both for painting a barn but also for establishing a theme. If you think about it, even Shakespeare was writing historical fiction. So you could call that a parallel if you had to, but I think it’s more of a way to remove the spectre of technology from a story that could be argued is more about the dogs than the humans in the first place.

I don’t have a dog and I don’t know very much about dogs, but I found the dog parts of this book the best part. No contest. And even though there weren’t that many scenes from the canine perspective, they drive the whole action. They are the reason everyone is where they are. The title marks the book as the story of Edgar Sawtelle, but the family legacy is to create a new species, practically, of dogs, called Sawtelle. The cover art that I have (on a hardback) puts the barn in the place of most prominence, and Edgar off to the side. I know you can’t put too much importance on cover art, but I do like how the barn is the focal point. All the characters are focused on the barn, and the barn is the scene of the cataclysmic ending. The human characters more or less stand in for Shakespeare’s royal family and associates, and serve as a framework upon which the story of the dogs can be built. But look at the names of the dogs! First of all, they come from and are recorded in a single dictionary that has endured. There’s a term for the proof of lineage that medieval people carried around and it is totally escaping me, even though I just heard it in the Knight’s Tale movie this past weekend. Anyway, this dictionary is that thing. And I have sort of lost my train of thought about it, but it was leading up to an analysis of the names of the three primary dogs:

Almondine: I suppose she’s supposed to stand in for Ophelia, but her character doesn’t fit that to me. She’s more like Edgar’s fairy godmother. According to Wikipedia (God bless you, Wiki!), almonds are a Hebrew symbol of watchfulness and a Christian symbol for the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. I can’t think of any character in Hamlet that serves as a protector for the Danish prince; perhaps that’s part of why he goes a little nutty. Ha ha. Edgar, in contrast, has been taken care of explicitly, and of all the things he does in the book none of them seem crazy to me. He always seems of sound mind. I think that the ghosts are actually appearing to him in the book, too (whereas in Shakespeare I think you could argue they are imaginary). I mean, Ophelia was Hamlet’s girlfriend and childhood companion, but she didn’t protect him or guide him in any way. I guess you could say that by being mute Edgar was poised equally between the humans and the dogs, but that’s another tangent that I can’t quite express what I am thinking about. And I have already said too much.

Essay: Essay, assay… this dog is a doer. The word’s definition is all about tests and trials. If we consider that John Sawtelle’s vision is finally realized in her, then she is the …

And this is where I officially got bogged down in my response to this book. Five days ago. It has stalled me completely, so I am behind on my television show and diet updates!

Real quick: Forte is obviously strength and Fortinbras and I will save the convoluted close readings for someone with some secondary sources, a better memory of small and salient details, and an actual term paper assignment.

What I really wanted to get at all this time was commenting on the negative reviews at Amazon.com. I definitely liked this book and I definitely agree with all the negative reviews. I am flummoxed by the number of people who do not seem to realize that this is Hamlet, but I understand why people who did understand that it was Hamlet and still disliked the book do so. There’s a commonly expressed opinion that the tragedy seems senseless here and without catharsis, that at least in Hamlet you get the sense that all the rottenness has been purged. It’s absolutely true that Trudy’s death is contrived and that Glen seems to change character just to play a necessary part in it. I agree that the poison-shopping prologue is not well-integrated and that human character motivations are lacking. But if you look at it from the dogs’ perspective, as a story about a kingdom of dogs, I think all the suspense and catharsis returns. These are dogs who may have been forcibly evolved up to a new species, practically, that have been freed to find their own way and make their own fortune. Essay came back to help her people, as it were. Fortinbras will lead these people to a new life. They had it great, but these were dogs in captivity. Scattered around the world they were making their own fame and fortune, but the image I am left with at the end is opportunities to control their own destinies. I fully expect these dogs to end up in Canada.

I also agree that the book needed an editor. The story I would have liked to have seen in more prominence is the science part, with more glimpses of the early kennels, more scenes between Brooks and Sawtelle, and more thoughts of other dogs. To me, Hamlet is like a framework upon which Wroblewski built a Frankenstein story with a happy ending. Even in Frankenstein, the monster is roaming free in the icy reaches of the north; at least in this book there’s a community instead of a bride ripped to pieces on the operating table.

Because I don’t want to go reread the beginning of this review and get stuck again, I will risk repeating myself. In Hamlet, the ghosts are ambiguous and perhaps imaginary. In Sawtelle, they are definitely real. It is an interesting decision I don’t really understand. I think this is a good example of something that could have been excised for clarity and length. With real ghosts, too, there is suddenly a supernatural presence that feels like a dropped plot-point.

I don’t want to end on a critical note, so I’ll say this: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a book I would recommend to any thoughtful reader, but one that is too sad for me to read again.

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