One-Minute Book Reviews

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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9 Comments »

  1. [...] only good thing about reading this book is that it facilitated my discovery of Harayda’s Totally Unauthorised Reading Group Guides. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Story of [...]

    Pingback by The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog — December 22, 2008 @ 7:39 am | Reply

  2. I would not recommend this book to anyone, ever! My mother gave a copy for Christmas to my two sisters and myself. It was totally fascinating UNTIL THE END! I finished it first and told Mom, who wanted to read it, let me know how she liked the ending. One of my sisters called and said she hated the ending too. We told Mom not to read it, and our other sister, to be careful about reading the ending.

    Comment by wordtresj — April 13, 2009 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

    • Some people have disliked the ending of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle even if they liked the book. I recently gave a talk about the novel at a library, where several people complained about the final chapters.

      I appreciate your perspective because critics tend to avoid talking about endings, except in a very general way, to avoid giving away too much. But there are books, like this one, where the ending may be a serious issue for readers.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 13, 2009 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  3. [...] downbeat ending. The reaction surprised me, because the reviews and publicity have made clear that the book has parallels to Hamlet, a tragedy in which corpses litter the stage in the last scene. Have the movies primed us to expect [...]

    Pingback by Do Readers Want ‘A Tragedy With a Happy Ending’? « One-Minute Book Reviews — May 18, 2009 @ 2:40 am | Reply

  4. The Sawtelles and their world did not exist before I began the book. They ceased to exist as I completed the book. Generations of genuine human endeavour and arduous self-discovery came to naught. Nihilism is its own hell. I want none of it.

    Comment by c livengood — June 15, 2009 @ 12:16 am | Reply

  5. I loved this book and am surprised that all the reviews here are negative. Since my husband died, I’ve found it very hard to concentrate long enough to read novels and so mostly stick with short stories, essays, and crossword puzzles. But this book brought back a pleasure I’d despaired of experiencing again: reading well-written prose with a great plot, caring deeply about the characters and spending much of my time away from the book worrying about them, trying to fit in snatches of reading whenever I could during the day, and staying up late to fit in just one more chapter. In response to the question about the novel’s parallels to Hamlet, I think the author did a wonderful job of using parallels when they made sense (hence the ending that so many readers find distressing) without allowing them to become ponderous. I also loved the chapters told from the dog’s point of view. We had a dog who seemed to have those very thoughts and feelings. I felt these chapters allowed Wroblewski to tell parts of the story that would have taken twice as many words and not been nearly as effective if they’d been told from the human point of view.

    Comment by millerrjjcej — October 17, 2009 @ 8:57 am | Reply

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I gave a talk at a library on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and found that many people share your views.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 17, 2009 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  6. Saw this post on my list of Related Links section…you have taken a similar line with the book review – especially the section on mapping the characters in Edgar Sawtelle with Hamlet :)

    I also like the questions you have listed as points for discussion. A book club is a great environment for reading and discussing this book

    Comment by Nish — February 8, 2010 @ 5:58 am | Reply

  7. I am currently working my way through Edgar Sawtelle…I think that the descriptions of the dogs and of the countryside are stunning….I was just wondering if anyone could hellp me to understand….why are some Hamlet characters dogs (i.e. Almondine /Ophelia….Laertes/Essay…..whereas some are humans? Thank you

    Comment by Ilana Salant — June 25, 2012 @ 4:54 pm | Reply


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