Shakespearean tragedy comes to the Midwest
September 11, 2008
It’s really hard to believe that “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is David Wroblewski’s first novel.
First, when I began reading the book this summer, it had the familiarity of an old and dear friend ” a feeling I typically associate with authors I’ve read many times before.
Second, because Wroblewski’s writing is so clear and true; it has none of the pretense of a first novel, trying to impress the reader with depth. And third, because Wroblewski embraced an imposing challenge: Retelling the work of William Shakespeare.
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is a modern-day variant of “Hamlet,” set in the rural countryside of Wisconsin. Wroblewski’s king and queen of Denmark in this case are breeders and trainers of a fictional type of dog that sounds a lot like the German Shepherd but is known for unusual wisdom, intelligence and empathy. The Hamlet in this tale, Edgar Sawtelle, is a mute teenager fully entrenched in his parents’ business, raising and training the dogs.
Putting Shakespeare in a modern context is a tricky business. The spellbinding plot-twists of some of the bard’s greatest tragedies aren’t easily translated into other settings; how, for example, do you plausibly kill off the lead character’s father, and have him come back from the dead to point an accusing finger at his own brother, who is in the process of wooing the father’s widow? Wroblewski does it by developing characters subtly. Edgar’s uncle, the quietly evil Claude, never erupts into a violent rage, and I never wanted him to.
The choice to make the main character mute is unique; Wroblewski told National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” he wanted to take Shakespeare’s hyper-verbal Hamlet and turn him into hyper-observant Edgar. The character’s resulting observations are all the more believable, and I looked forward to following him on the book’s journey.
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Of course, even though most of the characters get their names directly from the script of one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, Wroblewski makes this story completely his own. A very Shakespearean soothsayer type who sits behind the counter at the book’s general store doesn’t seem to have a counterpart in Hamlet, but fits all the same.
Author Jane Smiley was successful (enough so that she won the Pulitzer Prize) in retelling King Lear on the plains of Iowa for her novel, “A Thousand Acres,” and I think “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” ranks right up there. There’s a lot of pressure for authors to follow a breakout first novel with a stellar literary career, but I could happily reexamine the depth of Wroblewski’s first book for a long time before growing impatient for his second.