10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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?
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.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.