Review: Hamlet Meets Lad of Sunnybrook

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski

Harper Collins, 562 pages

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has generated considerable enthusiasm among literature lovers in these parts.  It’s not every day that a New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club pick is set in one’s back yard, after all.  At least, not if one lives in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

Perhaps if I had been more attentive to plot summary than to the buzz the novel has been creating, I would have realized that this is not the book for me.  I hadn’t understood that the characters in Edgar Sawtelle’s life can be summarized thus: Cast of Hamlet meets cast of Lad of Sunnybrook.  If I were more of a dog person or less of a Hamlet person, maybe this could have worked for me.

The title character is a fourteen-year-old only child who is congenitally mute.  He is the third generation of Sawtelles to breed a new kind of dog—one that is extraordinary in the art of companionship.  Wroblewski paints a compelling picture of Edgar’s tranquil, if somewhat bland, home life.  We can feel how much he loves his parents, the dogs, the land, the routine of all these things together.  Just in case we can’t feel it, however, Wroblewski reminds us that, “He loved ordinary things, ordinary days, ordinary work.”  In general, the reader is not trusted to figure things out for themselves in this narrative.

We do not have to guess whether Edgar—the Hamlet of the novel—has lost his faculties.  We know he hasn’t, though his precocious good sense is more than offset by the senselessness of so much death and drama all around. Calamity seems to happen primarily to facilitate the Shakespearean plot line and to give Edgar a reason to do something different once in awhile.  After one tragedy he starts to work harder (with the dogs), after another he sleeps in a hay mow (with the dogs), one more and he wanders in the woods for awhile (with the dogs), and so forth (with the dogs).

This works for a lot of people.  The clerk who sold me the book assured me I wouldn’t put it down once I started it. Others who have seen me carrying the novel have spontaneously gushed.  Clearly, I am missing something that speaks to thousands of readers.  If you have read this book and enjoyed it, I would love for you to comment with your thoughts regarding the aspects of this work that  I’m failing to appreciate.


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