An American Classic: Hamlet Redux

edgar sawtelleI finished reading “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski last week, and that alone is  worth crowing about.  The tome comes in at over 560 pages, and afterwards I found myself still scratching my head over the point of certain scenes.  Yes, yes, I get it–it is the re-imagined story of Hamlet set in a rural Wisconsin farm, featuring a mute boy, Edgar, who is the only son of a family who has for generations bred an outstanding breed of dog, epitomized by the faithful Almondine (Ophelia).  Events unfold, resulting in the death of the boy’s father by his evil uncle Claude (Claudius), who then takes up with his mother, Trudy (Gertrude).  After a dangerous turn of events, the boy, unable to face his father’s murderer, runs off with a pack of young dogs into the wilderness.  The  climax of the story comes only in the last fifty pages, when the Edgar, unable to resist the pull of home and his devotion to the family’s dogs, returns at last to confront his uncle.  The length and pacing of the novel is trying at times, and I am someone who cut her literary teeth on the tomes of Russian literature, slogging through and enjoying such works as the back-to-back reading of “Quiet Flows the Dawn” and “The Dawn Flows to the Sea,” followed by “Anna Karenina.” I am used to a story that unfolds gradually, quietly, but despite that, I did find myself sometimes speed-reading through some of the more lengthy descriptions of the dog training, or other scenes which neither moved the plot nor advanced the characters.  It was over one hundred pages before Edgar’s father dies, at which time I thought to myself, “Finally, we’re getting somewhere!”  It was another hundred or so before Edgar flees the farm… The whole work is like reading a lush poem–you have to let the beauty of the scenes just wash over you and not worry too terribly much what the heck it all has to do with the story.  And the author is a masterful wordsmith, weaving a colorful quilt of life through the seasons on a rural farm, the beauty of living closely with nature, the iconic image of the red barn, the unique companionship which comes from being truly close to an animal.  I enjoyed all of it, but still wondered if so much was necessary.  It seemed to me that the author perhaps fell in love with his own words so much he couldn’t bear to leave a single one on the cutting room floor.  And I also loved the examination of the outer reaches of communication–how a mute boy could “talk” to his dogs.  The book has been criticized by some for being to anthropomorphic, but I believe those critic are wrong on that account; when the author tells a scene from the dog Almondine’s view, it is clear that he is speaking through the dog only to give us a different view on human behavior, and I found the observations held a remarkable amount of truth.  Although the work is long, the pivotal scenes are so well done–especially the appearance the Edgar’s father as a ghost–that it is worth the read overall.  The long-awaited ending, however, is bizarre and so unsatisfying as to make this reader feel as if she were somehow cheated having persevered all the way to the end. The book has been hailed as a new American Classic.  I wonder, does the new American reader have the patience for this type of story any more? Comments welcome.

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1 Comment

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One response to “An American Classic: Hamlet Redux

  1. carolyn

    i highly recommend listening to the book.. got me through many road trips, enjoyed the long descriptions and found myself sitting in the car after i had reached me destination at times to get through a certain section!

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