The Story of Edgar Sawtelle


Finally finished this behemoth of a book. Whew!

I am now struggling to come to terms with the book as well as decide how I want to word this review without giving too much of the plot away; and then gave up on the attempt because I am revealing the plot by just mentioning that it is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet :D. Only, the story is set in a remote northern Wisconsin dog farm where the Sawtelle family raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,”.

Born mute, Edgar (Hamlet) nevertheless lives an idyllic life on his farm with his parents and dogs until the day his uncle Claude moves in with the family. Edgar’s father dies a sudden and mysterious death, and Claude becomes his mother’s lover. And then one day, Edgar sees his father’s ghost!

Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death but when his efforts end in disaster, he flees to the forest with three of his dogs. After some time, and after learning some life lessons, he sees some sort of sign, which suggests that he should return and face his ghosts. He comes back and faces a final dramatic showdown with Claude.

Before I go further with the review, I thought it would be useful to list out the characters in the book versus those in Hamlet. While reading this book, I found that I was constantly going back and forth between the book and Hamlet so that I could understand things a bit better (or because I was chomping at the the bit to know what was going to happen 🙂 ).

So, here’s a list of the characters that I was able to map to their equivalent ones in Hamlet (note: some of the dogs in the book act as stand-ins for some of the human characters in Hamlet).

The human characters include:

  • Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father),
  • Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother),
  • Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark),
  • Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle),
  • Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and
  • Glen Papineau, son of Doc Papineau (Laertes, son of Polonius).

The canine characters include:

  • Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius),
  • Forte (Fortinbras) and
  • Essay (Horatio).

I am sure there are plenty more that I have not yet mapped out 🙂

Now onto my review

For the most part, I loved this novel. I think the author’s idea of making Edgar mute is just brilliant. For one, it avoids any negative comparisons with Hamlet’s brilliant soliloquys. It also provides an additional depth to the story. Edgar’s disability + his youth (he is only 14 years old) make him a very endearing hero. The section in the book where his father is dying, and he is calling 911, but is unable to communicate with the telephone operator brought tears to my eyes.

The setting of the story in a remote place, and the humanizing of the dogs emotions (without being patronizing/childish) brings additional depth to the novel. Dog lovers will really appreciate the amount of research done by the author as well as the sensitivity of his writing.

However, the extremely slow pace of the novel tried my patience at times. This book is filled with descriptions, descriptions, and more descriptions. In addition, there are numerous rather mystical moments, which seem promising but are not really dealt with later on. I am not sure whether these are loose ends within the book, or whether the author just wanted us to infer things on our own. Either way, I feel a little additional explanation about people’s motives and a little less description of the barn, the countryside, the forest, and the dog breeding process might have made the book a more powerful read.

For example, I never quite understood the animosity between Gar and Claude. In Hamlet, the King’s murder makes perfect sense because the throne is worth killing for. In this book, I did not get why Claude killed Gar – for the dog farm, the wife, just general sibling rivalry?? why??

I do wish that I had read this book along with someone else, because there are a lot of discussion points, and it makes for very interesting debates about the nature of man and the nature of dogs. This would be an excellent book-club pick.

And oh, yeah! The end is brutal…well, of course it is, it is based on the over-the-top bloody Hamlet, for God’s sake. What other ending could it have?

One note: I think the binding of the paperback version of the book that is sold in India is of very poor quality, especially considering that this is quite the chunkster. My copy of the book practically fell apart after just this one reading. My suggestion, if you are buying this book, buy it in hardcover. This book is worth the extra money you spend on it.

11 Responses
  • Jon
    September 8, 2010

    Does anyone else know anything about the sinister Chevy Impala belonging to Claude? This car of all the events in the book bothered me the most. The way the author described it. Whenever its presence affected the current paragraph. (The scene after Edgar climbs into the apple tree and spies on Claude) Or the depiction of the car in the rain after Edgar sees his father’s ghost? The driving lesson, can anyone fill me in on this car and why the author chose it over any other Chevy muscle car like a Chevelle or a Camaro SS car?

    • Nish
      September 8, 2010

      @Jon: Interesting question. Why a Chevy Impala and not another car? Even the name Impala only conveys speed, nothing menacing about the animal or the car…I am afraid I have no ideas 🙁

  • sumanam
    February 8, 2010

    I never heard a negative view about this book, I think it’s high time I start reading this book.
    Very nice review.

    • Nish
      February 9, 2010

      @Sumana: actually there are plenty of negative reviews…people who hated the ending, found the book too slow etc…admittedly the book drags in quite a few places, but the writing is beautiful.

      I think you will like the book 🙂

  • Shweta
    February 8, 2010

    I read this book after it was put on the Oprah Book Club listing ( Ya , I follow that list 🙂 ) I had read a few previous selections so I went ahead and bought the hardcover (now I know I did the right thing , though at that time I was cursing myself for self indulgence) It is a wonderful book though it took me a month to finish it but all worth. Agree with you that it’s a great commentary on nature of humans as well as dogs.

    Loved this review ..

    • Nish
      February 9, 2010

      @Shweta: I too follow Oprah’s Book Club. I know many bloggers like to mock that list. But I have found quite a few good books from that list 🙂

%d bloggers like this: