The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

edgar sawtelle coverSeveral years ago, I read a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing book about a boy and his dogs. I have recommended it to friends, loaned it to my fiancé’s son and give it a place of honor on my book shelf. The fact that Oprah chose it for one of her book club recommendations didn’t stir me to buy it; in fact, I didn’t even know Oprah had chosen it for her book club until I began writing this blog post. But since today, August 26, is “National Dog Day,” I thought it would be a good time to revisit The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski’s debut novel, was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller. (Thank you Oprah!) And for good reason. It’s a wonderful tale. To date, it’s the only book Wroblewski has published.

Trudy and Gar Sawtelle live in Wisconsin. They have developed and sell to approved buyers a very special breed of dog, a type of dog very nearly human in terms of communication ability. After a series of miscarriages, Trudy gives birth to Edgar.

Wroblewski never specifically defines what the Sawtelle breed looks like, so my dog Maggie will stand in.

“This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.”

Born mute, Edgar nevertheless communicates with great effectiveness with his parents and with the dogs, particularly one named Almondine. And in the Sawtelles’ world, all is well until Gar’s brother, Claude, comes to stay on the farm.

If this sounds a bit Shakespearean to you, you are correct. Wroblewski borrows gently from Hamlet as you may have

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamletnoticed. Gertrude, Claudius, etc. And Speaking of HAMLET! What I wouldn’t give to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He premiered in London’s West End last night.  

But I digress. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle succeeds in – much as a great production of Hamlet, as the New York Times said,”exert(ing) a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.”

The exposition I most love about this book is the times the author translates what the dogs are feeling.  At times, it is truly heart-breaking.

To her, the scent and the memory of him were one. Where it lay strongest, the distant past came to her as if that morning: Taking a dead sparrow from her jaws, before she knew to hide such things. Guiding her to the floor, bending her knee until the arthritis made it stick, his palm hotsided on her ribs to measure her breaths and know where the pain began. And to comfort her. That had been the week before he went away.

He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep. She stood then and nosed into the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom-especially the closet-her intention to press her ruff against his hand, run it along his thigh, feel the heat of his body through the fabric.

Places, times, weather-all these drew him up inside her. Rain, especially, falling past the double doors of the kennel, where he’d waited through so many storms, each drop throwing a dozen replicas into the air as it struck the waterlogged earth. And where the rising and falling water met, something like an expectation formed, a place where he might appear and pass in long strides, silent and gestureless. For she was not without her own selfish desires: to hold things motionless, to measure herself against them and find herself present, to know that she was alive precisely because he needn’t acknowledge her in casual passing; that utter constancy might prevail if she attended the world so carefully. And if not constancy, then only those changes she desired, not those that sapped her, undefined her.

And so she searched. She’d watched his casket lowered into the ground, a box, man-made, no more like him than the trees that swayed under the winter wind. To assign him an identity outside the world was not in her thinking. The fence line where he walked and the bed where he slept-that was where he lived, and they remembered him.

 Read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle with your book club. Fair warning: it is a long work, and a dense one. GIve yourself time to savor the thoughts, the words, the emotions. The philosophy.
“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say that this place, right here, is heaven, hell and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes […] Half the time we walk around in love with the idea of a thing instead of the reality of it. But sometimes things don’t turn out that way. You have to pay attention to what’s real, what’s in the world. Not some imaginary alternative, as if it’s a choice we could make.”
Since the setting is Wisconsin, I would focus my menu on Wisconsin foods. Cheese, brats, sausage.
But I also found in my research something called a Butter Burger that sounds quite good.  Here’s a recipe from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives:
In a previous blog, I posted a dog music list: You could definitely go with that. Or if you want to get musical in another direction, you could opt for the music of Wisconsin’s own sons and daughters.
Al Jarreau
Les Paul
Steve Miller
Woody Herman
According to a 2008 press release, Tom Hanks and the Divine O herself acquired the movie rights to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I can’t find any more information about whether a film is actually being made.  It has all the elements of a great movie, so I hope it does come to fruition.
Gar: Jason Bateman
Claude: Robert Downey, Jr.
Trudy: Meg Ryan (I’d love to see her in this role)
Edgar: I don’t know. This might be a casting director’s dream and/or nightmare. A young Josh Hutcherson would have been perfect, but he’s aged out.
jason-bateman75meg ryan
Happy Reading & Eating!

A Necessary End: Mad Men’s Final Episodes. What Would Shakespeare Do?

mad-men-silhouetteThe by-now iconic silhouette begins each show.  The head and shoulders of a man, relaxed against a low-profile sofa, his white collar and cuff stark against the vacuum surrounding him.  Don Draper/Dick Whitman sits alone, just as he sat in second one, minute one of show one, season one of Mad Men.

I’ve been amusing myself over the past couple of days staving off my mourning by re-watching some of the classic shows — Carousel, Betty shooting birds, Goodbye Mr. Cooper — and trying to figure out how it all will end.  Expert, on-line theories range from the obvious, Don is the falling man in the credits at the top of the show, to the highly improbable, each cast member dies and turns into an omnivorous zombie. Another:  Don dies in an airplane crash and Neve Campbell returns to be the angel of death to whisk him away.  Time magazine actually has the audacity to suggest that Mad Men will have a happy ending!  (In 1970?  Didn’t they read 1970?)


I have dusted off my own crystal ball (in the shape of The Riverside Shakespeare) and as an alternate, and mostly amusing theory, propose that Mad Men is a Shakespearean tragedy with all the elements thereof, and occasionally even, some of the actual dialogue and plot lines.  (For example, I rewatched an episode last night named “The Quality of Mercy”!)  In service of this theory, therefore, I give you the following:

There are many elements common among tragedies in general, a tragic hero, a lofty theme, the intervention of fate/supernatural, the commentary of a chorus, humor via word play or the unexpected and spectacle.

Mad Men contains each element.

Don Draper, the Tragic Hero.  An articulate, social authority, someone who is important within his own society and has one weakness or fault — a tragic flaw — that during the course of the drama grows until it overcomes his virtues and leads to his downfall and the destruction of his world.

Theme:  Ambition, Desire.

Intervention of Fates/Supernatural:  The fire that allowed Dick Whitman to become Don Draper.  Don’s meeting with Roger leading to his job with Sterling Cooper.  The LSD in season five and the marijuana in season six and all the way back to season one and two.


:  Mad-Men-Season-7-Promo-Photos-Part-2 (9)These guys.  All of them but Ginsburg have been there from the beginning.  There’s also another chorus, Don’s extra-marital women over the years, commenting on Don himself, in order of their appearance, with thanks to  Midge, Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett, Joy in Palm Springs, Shelly a flight attendant, Sally’s teacher Suzanne Farrell, post-separation Bethany Van Nuys, sex worker Candace, Dr. Faye Miller, post-Clio diner waitress, Sylvia Rosen, Megan’s Cali friend Amy.  This list does not include the woman who raised him, the woman who gave him the Hershey’s bar in the whorehouse, Anna Draper or her niece Stephanie.  Or Joan Harris.

Humor:  Check.  Roger Sterling’s famous for it.

Spectacle.  As the most recent example, Bert Cooper’s swan song and dance.  Also the My Old Kentucky Home episode, and the tractor episode.

sally and donIf Don is the tragic hero — I was originally thinking Hamlet, but that really doesn’t work.  Othello maybe?  MacBeth?  Or a mixture of all of them.  You know who Don most reminds me of is Oberon, who is not a tragic hero because he is in a comedy.  But Oberon is a king, he has lots of women trouble and lots of women.  He has an assistant who likes to make trouble.  Oberon is definitely a creative and emotional type.  He actually flooded the earth out of anger with his woman, Titania, when she got angry with him for his peccadilloes all the while blaming it on her.  Very Don.

Moving on to cast the rest.  Having gone back to season one, it seems to me the primary trio of the show are Don, Peggy and Pete.  Now, I can’t stand Pete.  But as much as I hate to admit it, this show seems to be as much about Pete’s journey as anyone else’s.  I’m going to save Peggy till the end.

Pete Campbell — the archetype of the malign influence, who causes trouble out of hatred, jealousy or temper.  Iago from images-4Othello, Tybalt of Romeo & Juliet.  Says Iago:  “We cannot all be masters, not all masters cannot be truly follow’d.”  Pete may appear to follow Don’s lead, but only for a time.

Betty — It seems to me Betty is so Ophelia, driven mad by her love for Don.  And Ophelia’s father died, just as Betty’s did.

tumblr_lsrsnuhljj1qaj4pxo1_500“She speaks much of her father; says she hears There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense.

Roger Sterling – At first, I was considering Roger as Polonius in Hamlet.  Full of trite platitudes.  But that’s not right.  Roger is deeper than his platitudes. Nor is he simply Puckish, though full of him. I think he is Mercutio, the one friend of Romeo’s with ties to the Capulet house in R&J.  Mercutio has the invitation to the Capulet ball that allows Romeo entry.  He is witty, with a wicked sense of humor and can be moody and tempermental.

Freddy Rumson – Freddy started Mad Men as a creative who lost his job due to his drinking.  Over the course of several seasons, Freddy got sober and in the beginning of Season 7, it was Freddy who Don turned to to advance Don’s own pitches under cover to the firm.  In King Lear, the Fool is the only one allowed to criticize the King or to speak frankly to him, all the while appearing as a fool.  Freddy is just such a wise fool to Don.

Joan  – I love Joan so much.  But Shakespeare apparently didn’t share the appreciation.  Very frequently, the Bard would write a powerful woman as a malign figure, someone to fear. In tragedies, she always dies, (Cleopatra, Lady MacBeth) Joan Harrisand in comedies she will usually come under the influence of a male character in some way (Titania). Within the first ten lines of the Antony and Cleopatra, the men define Cleopatra as a lustful “gipsy,” a description that is repeated, a “wrangling queen” (I.i.50), a “slave” (I.iv.19), an “Egyptian dish” (, and a “whore” (; she is called “Salt Cleopatra” (II.i.21) and an enchantress who has made Antony “the noble ruin of her magic” (III.x.18).

In the Season Five shocker episode titled “The Other Woman,” Pete Campbell even calls Joan “Cleopatra,” after she agrees to trade her body for a night so that the firm can get the Jaguar account, and she can get a partnership.  At the end of the first half of Season Seven, Joan had just received a marriage proposal from none other than Bob Benson, to be carried off to Detroit, as his “captive wife,” to charm the natives.

Peggy Olson – The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s more perplexing plays.  It’s labeled a comedy, yet it has disturbing overtones of tragedy.  And it’s heroine, Portia, spends much of the play dressed in drag and advocating on behalf of her beloved while appearing to be a man.  In Season Six of Mad Men, “The Quality of Mercy” episode had Peggy finally equalling Don in creative ability, and then confronting him, mano a mano, in a dramatic conclusion.  The title of the episode derives from Portia’s most famous monologue in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.Millais_-_Portia
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

Peggy created her masterpiece St. Joseph aspirin ad, all the while flirting outrageously and openly with the very married Ted.  During the presentation with the client, Don put them on the spot with a masterful use of silence and inference, saying nothing to the client, yet implying everything to Ted and Peggy.  Immediately after, Peggy came into Don’s office on a tear, telling him, “I know what you did.”  As she swept out the door, she said, “You are a monster.”

Sally – It is tempting to cast Sally as Cordelia, and I suppose we must.  The beloved daughter.  And yet, Sally is so very . . . un-Cordelia-like to me.

What Happens to Them

Iago is taken into custody and exposed but his sentence is left unpronounced and Iago himself takes a vow of silence, promising never to explain his own actions.  Tybalt, of course, is killed by Romeo, prompting Romeo’s banishment.  Pete Campbell is already in California.  It may be that his end is to stay there, released from his time with Sterling Cooper & Company, silenced forever, whether by his own choice or simply because no one wanted to listed to him anymore.

Ophelia, driven insane by Hamlet’s cruelty and her father’s death, falls from a tree branch into the rushing current below and dies.  Betty Draper is already gone, transformed into Betty Francis by marriage.  No question she was insane, maybe slightly less so now with Henry.  I’d say Betty stays up there in Rye, New York, part of the swimming current of the 1970s.

Mercutio is the character who challenges Tybalt to a duel and it is Mercutio who is the first to be stabbed by Tybalt, under the arm of Romeo, cursing both Romeo and Tybalt as he dies.  “A plague on both your houses,” he says.  Unfortunately, for those wishing for Roger and Joan to lead a happily-ever-after existence, I don’t think that will happen.   In a show of support for Don, Roger will suffer a heart attack.

Cleopatra was out of options when she raised the asp to her neck and ended it all.  I just don’t see Joan reaching that desperation spot.  But she might buy a snakeskin bag.

Portia ends up on top.  Completely in charge of the entire situation.  d3fc4015e79679f0b1b77dca0f2676bd

Tossing her cap, so to speak, in the air and welcoming in the 1970s.  Peggy‘s come a long way too, baby.

Cordelia – At the conclusion of the play, Lear struggles onstage carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms, finally realizing that she who knew him best, loved him best. So much reminds me of the scenes with Don and Sally when you see Sally truly assessing her father for who he is, and giving him a pass on it and loving him anyway.  Perhaps, symbolically, Sally will become a devotee of The Grateful Dead and follow them around the country.

Don — Having established that this is a tragedy, we know that it must end with the tragic fall of the hero and the destruction of his world.  In other words, Don must die.  Sterling Cooper must die.  Betty has found a new world, so has Megan and soon also will the only other survivors Sally, Peggy and Pete.  The world will be destroyed.  And I think, all in all, that is a good thing.   Would anyone be more satisfied to see Don driving off in a convertible with yet another woman, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, knowing he’s facing fifty, then sixty, paunch, old age, cancer, liver disease, grey hair, becoming the smarmy old guy in the bar that every woman is trying to avoid?  No.  That is NOT a happy ending.

In the end, Mad Men‘s conclusion may best be stated by Puck:

 If we shadows have offended,
 Think but this, and all is mended—
 That you have but slumbered here
 While these visions did appear.
 And this weak and idle theme,
 No more yielding but a dream,
 Gentles, do not reprehend.
 If you pardon, we will mend.
 And, as I am an honest Puck,
 If we have unearnèd luck
 Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
 We will make amends ere long.
 Else the Puck a liar call.
 So good night unto you all.
 Give me your hands if we be friends,
 And Robin shall restore amends.