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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I find starting these blog entries very difficult. Who is the audience? Should I aim at those who were at the discussion, the reader of the specific book who wasn’t there, or the general reader? As I recall, my original idea was to keep the discussion going, but there have been almost no comments from anyone. But I remember at this discussion someone, I think Mary Ruth, mentioned that the book stayed with her long after she finished it. I am finding that true of our discussions too. In this case, I am particularly interested in the question of whether Claude bought the poison deliberately to kill his brother. Here is what the author said in an interview with Oprah:

I think it’s one of those things that can be interpreted a couple of different ways. But my take is that’s the moment [when he buys the poison] in Claude’s life when he has not yet given up hope of being a full person, a sound, good person. And he’s—what he’s encountered at this point is the ability to have death, which is the little debate that he and the old herbalist have about it’s not good to have the power of death but not the power of life. But I don’t believe that he—I believe he’s—he has a sort of darkness in him that draws him toward that. But he doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t have a specific purpose for it. Certainly not the purpose to go many years later—

This is from a conversation so it is not neatly done, but Oprah interjects “kill his brother” and Wroblewski says, “ it’s something he’s drawn toward. He might not know why…it would be a fascinating thing to have hold of.” It was the explanation I was naturally drawn to—I am interested in the way we are a product of our subconscious (maybe even unconscious) thoughts at least as much as our deliberate thoughts. And I am drawn to the idea of a single action, particularly one taken early in life defining our course. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (“And that has made all the difference.”) So I was surprised when I woke up the next morning thinking about Judi Hamill’s sense that Claude knew what the poison was for when he bought it. She (and others) kept reminding us of the recognition that he worked very slowly and patiently. And I imagined this man, a scraper, the unfavored (it seems) second son, in a foreign land asked by his government to fight for an idea, tempted by this poison. The rain, I remember. The death of the dog. He saw its power and must have know its evilness. He takes it. At that point he succumbs to temptation. There is no turning back. And he knows, at some level, that his choice is bad. And the idea of the farm and his brother must be there, in him. Not a plan, but the seed. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t do anything with it. Until. We don’t know why he came back then, Wroblewski clearly doesn’t know that. But. The opening scene is chilling. The rest of the book is the unfolding of that original action.

So I think now that in some important way, Claude knew what the poison was for, though he wasn’t certain he would use it. In spite of what the author says. Elsewhere, the author states that he wrote the book originally only from Edgar’s point of view, and didn’t want to know more than Edgar would know. He has expanded the book, but he is not the omnipotent author. There is plenty he doesn’t know and he has said so. And what I find fascinating, is that the book is ours now, to make as we choose. The reader takes the book and adds to it through his/her own sensibilities and experiences. We can argue (and I guess I like to) about various interpretations, but they are reflections of our own experiences. This is stating the obvious, but it deserves to be stated, I think. Each reading, each discussion, affects the vibrations the book makes in the world. Awesome.

There were a couple of things about this book that struck me, that weren’t mentioned in the discussion, and I would like to bring them up here. One was weather. I thought Wroblewski used it to effectively incline the reader to a particular mood. This was one of the things that reminded me of Lear. I leave it at that. The other was the wonderful section where Edgar is out in the wilderness. A wild man. Maybe a little like Claude, but without the evil impulse.

Wroblewski said elsewhere:
Another preoccupation of mine, [the first being dogs and their relationship to us] not unrelated to the first, has to do with the nature of wildness in the human character. We glimpse it in ourselves every day, from the surge of emotion that rises from nowhere to the flash of inspiration we can’t explain. Even memory itself, the very core of our identity, remains slyly feral, heedlessly retrieving all manner of incident and image, indifferent to whether its discoveries are burdens or gifts.

This is the core of the book that makes it fascinating for me. I felt unsatisfied by the sometimes rickety construction, especially at the end, but the architecture was strong. And the theme of that mysterious wilderness inside us, and the wilderness outside that both beckons and frightens compels me.

Maybe something new came up for you in reading this. If so, please click on the “No Comments,” (or maybe you won’t be first and there will be an indication that someone else commented), and leave a reply. We would all love to read what you think.

3 Responses to “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski”

  1. Judith Hamill Says:

    The prologue depicting Claude buying the poison set the stage for murder. He was not comfortable, perhaps he was even afraid, yet he still went down the forbidding alley and bought the poison in exchange for medicine that was more than likely stolen from the ship he was on. Getting the poison was deliberate; Claude did not do things spontaneously. He was a very methodical person who planned everything. Throughout the book, the author reiterated many times that Claude was able to wait a long time to get the things he wanted.

    Claude inserted himself in Edgar’s family with a plan. Slowly but surely he became “friends” with Dr. Papineau and the sheriff, Glen. He insinuated malicious rumors about Gar and then about Edgar (the only two people who recognized Claude’s evil). Claude was very clever at disparaging other people’s motives/actions, one-on-one. With his malicious mind, he actually achieved TWO perfect murders……..thank goodness the burning barn roof fell on him.

    Trudy was a puzzle to me. How did she fall in with Claude so easily so soon after Gar’s death? If she knew Gar so well, why didn’t she have an instinctual dislike of Claude, since the brothers were always at odds. Her entanglement with Claude actually led to her son’s running away, his death, and the ruin of her home, her livelihood, and her life. Of course, if this is imitating Hamlet than it would have to be. But life does not always imitate literature…….or am I expecting too much.

  2. admin Says:

    I have thought more about what I didn’t like about this book. The suspense. I don’t like to read stuff where a lot of different things are going wrong at the same time and there seems no possibility of escape. It is alright if there is an arc to disaster, but, for some reason, I cannot read chaotic tragedy, or even very bad things. Those are the parts I skim. Since this is more usually a characteristic of thrillers or other books not considered literary, I tend to think of it as a problem with the book. But maybe it is simply a problem with me.

    Susan Raymond

  3. mary ruth culbert Says:

    On Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 12:57 PM, wrote:

    Susan,

    Was so glad you are back to your comments especially about Edgar….

    And you are right. I still think about the story and I think we might have even continued the discussion but got bogged down on Claude getting out of the barn. I was ready to jump in the story and haul him back in even if I had to hold him myself if he had gotten safely out. sound vicious don’t I.

    If he had his wits about him, he was holding the mesh of the dogs pens, he could have gone in and crawled out their yard access doors. The part of evil i really thought he exhibited was how smoothly he manipulated the vets son to try to get rid of Edgar.

    Anyway, I printed out the list of the books, but I don’t really know where to go to get reviews of them. I guess the NY times is the best bet. I’ll let you know if I have a choice.

    See you in a month. Mary Ruth

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