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Book Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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Destiny often has a way of breeding tragedy. As is the case in so much of our Western literary canon, greed and corruption catch up with those who believe they are ordained to own something larger than themselves.

So it goes in one of the quintessential Western tragedies, Shakespeare's Hamlet, where greed and madness become the norm in the struggle between Hamlet's own moral quest for revenge and his uncle Claudius' blood-lust for control and domination. Hamlet may be internationally known as one of the best tragedies of Western literature, but it still relies on the elements of tragedy that stretch back thousands of years ago to tell its tale; in fact, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from stories in the past to create a modern drama that spoke directly to his audience.

It's still an effective model, and it's one that continues to influence our modern keepers of the literary canon. In American novelist David Wroblewski's debut novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Shakespeare's Hamlet is used to structure and fashion a new tragedy out of the American rural Midwest. Wroblewski may have created a story around a Shakespearean tragedy, but The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a uniquely American novel, one that is daring enough to take as a serious work of literature.

The novel follows Edgar Sawtelle, a mute teenager who lives on a Wisconsin farm and has spent his entire life helping his parents raise a rare breed of dogs. His parents, Gar and Trudy, depend on the expensive pedigree of the dogs to keep the farm going, and Edgar soon learns the importance of his future role on the farm.

As Edgar begins to rear and train one of the young litters, things begin to change. His father dies from what appears to be a rare brain hemorrhage, and Edgar's uncle Claude comes in to help out with the daily chores and responsibilities of the kennel. For Edgar, this marks the end of his idyllic childhood and the beginning of his quest to survive as an adult, and he also starts to suspect that his father's death was not an accident.

While Wroblewski uses Hamlet as a guide, he does not craft a story that is solely a re-telling of an old tale. Even though the base elements of the plot are essentially the same – those familiar with Hamlet can easily pick out what happens next as they read – the themes and issues Edgar faces in his life are unique, and reflect a coming-of-age story that is about his own personal struggles more than the desire to exact revenge on Claude. As Edgar begins to take on new roles, he seeks out information about his past and discovers just how important the dogs are to his freedom.

The dogs play a significant role throughout The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. In fact, they are the only characters Edgar can wholly rely on, especially as he comes to terms with the portentous events surrounding him. Wroblewski makes their important role clear throughout the novel by using Almondine, the dog who works both as Edgar's guide and as his closest companion, as a central character.

Wroblewski even puts parts of the plot through the eyes and ears of Almondine, which also highlights the unique gift Edgar has: as a mute boy, he often communicates with the dogs better than with other human beings.

Wroblewski is also hinting at the significance of events, not only through the text (Trudy trains her dogs "like a queen dismissing courtiers," for example) but also through the placement of characters. One such character is Ida Paine, a local grocery store owner who acts like an oracle figure, constantly predicting the future and pointing characters to the tragic endings that face them. In the Almondine chapters, the dog's expressions of the world around her express the emotions Edgar feels but is not able to express himself. Other characters, such as Claude, work as antagonists which Edgar must overcome, and Wroblewski clearly hints at his source material in their placement within the text.

Although Wroblewski isn't afraid to borrow heavily from Shakespeare to fashion his novel, some elements work better than others. For example, Edgar's journey to find himself is a much more interesting development in the book than the tragic ending, even if the tragic ending is expected. Equally, Wroblewski sometimes awkwardly places the events of Hamlet into the text in far too literal terms; Edgar seeing the ghostly embodiment of his father or re-enacting his murder in front of everyone is a bit predictable, and could have been portrayed in a more modern way.

At the same time, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a wonderful book that deals well with the elements of tragedy in a modern setting. The fact that Wroblewski has created a coming-of-age tale around Edgar's personal revelations and his relationship with his dogs makes it even better. Wroblewski is clearly a writer who knows how to craft an American novel that is willing to reinvent the stories of the past, and if this debut novel is any indication, we can expect even greater things from Wroblewski in the future.

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