Something Is Rotten In The State Of ... Wisconsin?

Lin Enger

hide captionLin Enger was hunting in the woods with his brother when inspiration struck for the opening scene of Undiscovered Country.

Read an excerpt of Undiscovered Country.

David Wroblewski

hide captionDavid Wroblewski describes the relationship between his novel and Shakespeare's Hamlet as "a re-folded piece of origami."

Harper Collins

Two new books this summer are bringing the storyline of Shakespeare's Hamlet to the American Midwest. And while neither author says he set out to simply update Hamlet, both novels feature suspicion, betrayal and an uncle close at hand to offer help — and more — to his brother's widow.

Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country, which takes place in the fictional Northern Minnesota town of Battle Point, begins with what appears to be a hunting accident: A boy, Jesse Matson, hears a shot in the woods, runs toward it and discovers his father's dead body. It seems that his father committed suicide, but Jesse doesn't believe that's the case.

The scenario occurred to Enger more than a decade ago, as he was up in a tree, hunting deer with his brothers. When he realized that the scene mirrored the beginning of Hamlet, he decided to use the play as a starting point, he says, "to find out whether my character, given the same dilemma that Hamlet faces, would make similar decisions."

Novelist David Wroblewski also drew inspiration from the bard for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which he describes as an exercise in "how to subvert [Hamlet] as many ways as I could."

To wit: There's no trace of Elsinore castle in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Rather, Hamlet's family is moved to a Wisconsin farm, where Edgar, who was born mute, uses sign language to communicate with his parents and the dogs they breed and train. Wroblewski plays the character's silence against the hyper-verbal Hamlet.

"In Edgar's case, I wanted him to be hyper-observant," Wroblewski says. "And I felt that by subtracting the power of language, he would be a more believable and more potent observer of what's going on."

Wroblewski based the fictional Sawtelle farm on his own childhood home. His mother trained dogs on their 90-acre farm in Central Wisconsin. He describes his novel as "simply a love story between a boy and his dog," and he points to Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli Stories about a boy living in the wild as another major influence.

"I think of ... the relationship between Edgar's story and Hamlet's story as a re-folded piece of origami," he explains. "At one time, this was a perfectly executed origami crane. And I unfolded it and refolded it into a different shape. And when it's in that different shape — say it's a frog now — you can see a few feathers over here where no frog should have feathers."

Certainly the big themes of Hamlet are able to withstand a lot of folding and re-folding. And the bard is no stranger to the American Midwest; Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres moved the story of King Lear to a farm in Iowa.

Enger says Shakespeare is particularly adaptable because the conflicts that he chronicles — between vengeance and justice, and vengeance and forgiveness — are "probably the oldest moral dilemma that human beings face."

Wroblewski adds that all storytellers "take old stories, they change the proportions, they change the elements around, in ways that are meaningful to them."

Sometimes that means surrounding the prince of Denmark with a kennel full of dogs, or having him hunt deer from a tree in Minnesota.

Excerpt: 'Undiscovered Country'

'Undiscovered Country'
Undiscovered Country
By Lin Enger
Hardcover, 320 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $23.99

This first part, I have to warn you, is ugly, and for too long now I've been carrying it alone, going to sleep on it at night and then waking in the dark, my T-shirt soaked through, the images and sounds playing out in my head, even as I tell myself it's just a dream, there's nothing I can do, it's over and done.

Imagine it with me:

Gray dusk, mid-November, the north woods of Minnesota. You're up in a tree, a red maple whose leaves have all dropped, and all around you the late-autumn woods are stirring in preparation for sleep — squirrels barking in descant, a pair of ground sparrows wrestling in the moist, dead leaves, an owl sliding past and fastening itself to the upper branch of a dead spruce thirty feet away. There's still a chance the deer you've been waiting for will show itself, but that's unlikely now and it doesn't matter, because in the silence you've discovered your eyes and your ears and, best of all, your own company, on which someday you'll have to rely.

In other words, you're learning to trust yourself.

I was perched that day cross-legged on a small wooden platform eight or so feet off the ground, my lever-action .30-30 resting in my lap. My hands were so cold and numb that I couldn't persuade them to pluck my watch from the bottom of my ammo pocket where it lay among a dozen unspent brass cartridges. With effort I maneuvered my fingers through zippers and wool and wedged them into my armpits to thaw. They felt like little frozen breakfast sausages, like nothing that belonged to me. When I could move them again, I fished out my watch by its broken band. Five twenty-two, it said. Just a few minutes more of legal shooting time, and then I'd be climbing down from my perch and making my way across the quarter-mile ridge to the old hairy white pine where my dad was sitting, and together the two of us would hike to the car, parked out of sight in the high brown ditchgrass.

For as long as I could remember I had been Dad's pal, his shadow, his right-hand man. I fished and hunted with him. I worked alongside him on his fix-up projects — installing wooden booths in his supper club, the Valhalla, sanding the floors of the ex-governor's old lake-home the year we bought it and moved in there, constructing a sauna in its attic. I hammered, painted, measured, pried and stapled. I tore things down and built them up. There was never a time when I was embarrassed to be seen with my dad, never any real awkwardness between us — though if there had been, I guess it wouldn't matter now. If only I could just close my eyes and will myself back to that day, climb into that tree, grab hold of my collar and yank myself to my feet, say, Go, man, go now — hurry, and then watch that skinny young kid that was me vault out of his deer stand and race through the woods to save his dad, whom he loved. Whom I loved. The problem is, I didn't know he needed saving. And anyway, I'm stuck with how it actually happened, the breeze stiffening out of the northeast, chilling my back and carrying with it the smell of winter coming.

As I watched the sun's pink top falling beneath the treeline, I imagined how good it was going to feel getting thawed out. I imagined Dad and myself in the old hunting car, a giant twenty-year-old Mercury, saw him listen, pleased, to the little revs he produced with his foot, saw him reach into his pocket and throw me a candy bar before spreading his fat grizzly-bear hand in front of the vent to check for heat.

At five thirty I dropped my watch back into my ammo pocket. Then, with my thumb poised to eject the cartridges from my rifle, I heard the single report. Even considering the heavy growth of trees between us, it should have been louder, but that doesn't explain the immediate feeling I had that something was wrong. I thought of Mom at home with Magnus, pictured her at the kitchen window, lovely but taut-faced, the last of the sun chroming her platinum hair.

Guns, she'd always say during hunting season, shaking her head. Years ago she had allowed Dad to teach her how to use his rifle — she'd even gone out into the woods with him a few times. But apparently that was an indulgence from early in the marriage.

I slid to the edge of my flat wooden perch, flipped over on my belly and scrambled down the crude ladder of boards we'd nailed to the maple's trunk. From four or five feet up I jumped, and my knees jammed my chest on impact. I ran. Against all training and good sense, I ran with a loaded rifle through the woods, knowing I should wait for the second shot, the kill shot, before moving, knowing I should stop and unload. I sprinted along the top of the ridge, ducking the shaggy branches of the white pines, stumbling through clumps of red willow and then down the steep slope into the marsh where I crashed through cattails and high-stepped the ice-crusted muck. At the other side, on the edge of a five-acre cluster of white pine and birch, I paused. My heart was going hard, pushing blood out to my fingertips, which tingled, warm. Dad's stand was only forty yards ahead, nailed seven feet up in a dying white pine, but I couldn't see it or him. The sun had gone under by now, and a dirty blue darkness was rising from the forest floor.

Dad! I called, and then moved forward again. I felt my heart beating in my neck and tried to quicken my pace, but then I tripped on a tree root, a long naked thing my eyes picked up only as it hooked my booted toe.

Okay, I said out loud. I got back on my feet, relieved my gun hadn't discharged, and tried to calm myself, slow my breathing. And it was then, just after I'd unloaded my rifle, that I saw him. For a moment I thought he was hiding from me back there behind the rotting trunk of the tipped-over birch tree, waiting to leap up and scare me. But next I saw his orange hunting cap ten feet away, hooked on the branch of a wild caragana, and then I saw his right eye staring past me into the woods — and then I saw where the top of his head should have been.

From the eyebrows up, he was simply gone, poof, blown away. Yet in spite of his ruined head, in spite of the way his right leg was tucked back under him at an angle he never could have managed, I felt certain that he was going to sit up and laugh, reassure me, It's all right, Jesse, everything's okay, because according to him everything always was.

Copyright © 2008 by Lin Enger

Excerpt: 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

Chapter One

A Handful of Leaves

In the year 1919, Edgar's grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he'd never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go. Twenty tons of rolling maple buried a man where Schultz had stood the moment before. As he helped unpile logs to extract the wretched man's remains, Schultz remembered a pretty parcel of land he'd spied north and west of Mellen. The morning he signed the papers he rode one of his ponies along the logging road to his new property and picked out a spot in a clearing below a hill and by nightfall a workable pole stable stood on that ground. The next day he fetched the other pony and filled a yoked cart with supplies and the three of them walked back to his crude homestead, Schultz on foot, reins in hand, and the ponies in harness behind as they drew the cart along and listened to the creak of the dry axle. For the first few months he and the ponies slept side by side in the pole shed and quite often in his dreams Schultz heard the snap when the chains on that load of maple broke.

He tried his best to make a living there as a dairy farmer. In the five years he worked the land, he cleared one twenty-five-acre field and drained another, and he used the lumber from the trees he cut to build an outhouse, a barn, and a house, in that order. So that he wouldn't need to go outside to tote water, he dug his well in the hole that would become the basement of the house. He helped raise barns all the way from Tannery Town to Park Falls so there'd be plenty of help when his time came.

And day and night he pulled stumps. That first year he raked and harrowed the south field a dozen times until even his ponies seemed tired of it. He stacked rocks at the edges of the fields in long humped piles and burned stumps in bonfires that could be seen all the way from Popcorn Corners — the closest town, if you called that a town — and even Mellen. He managed to build a small stone-and-concrete silo taller than the barn, but he never got around to capping it. He mixed milk and linseed oil and rust and blood and used the concoction to paint the barn and outhouse red. In the south field he planted hay, and in the west, corn, because the west field was wet and the corn would grow faster there. During his last summer on the farm he even hired two men from town. But when autumn was on the horizon, something happened — no one knew just what — and he took a meager early harvest, auctioned off his livestock and farm implements, and moved away, all in the space of a few weeks.

At the time, John Sawtelle was traveling up north with no thought or intention of buying a farm. In fact, he'd put his fishing tackle into the Kissel and told Mary, his wife, he was delivering a puppy to a man he'd met on his last trip. Which was true, as far as it went. What he didn't mention was that he carried a spare collar in his pocket.

That spring their dog, Violet, who was good but wild-hearted, had dug a hole under the fence when she was in heat and run the streets with romance on her mind. They'd ended up chasing a litter of seven around the backyard. He could have given all the pups away to strangers, and he suspected he was going to have to, but the thing was, he liked having those pups around. Liked it in a primal, obsessive way. Violet was the first dog he'd ever owned, and the pups were the first pups he'd ever spent time with, and they yapped and chewed on his shoelaces and looked him in the eye. At night he found himself listening to records and sitting on the grass behind the house and teaching the pups odd little tricks they soon forgot while he and Mary talked. They were newlyweds, or almost. They sat there for hours and hours, and it was the finest time so far in his life. On those nights, he felt connected to something ancient and important that he couldn't name.

But he didn't like the idea of a stranger neglecting one of Vi's pups. The best thing would be if he could place them all in the neighborhood so he could keep tabs on them, watch them grow up, even if from a distance. Surely there were half a dozen kids within an easy walk who wanted a dog. People might think it peculiar, but they wouldn't mind if he asked to see the pups once in while.

Then he and a buddy had gone up to the Chequamegon, a long drive but worth it for the fishing. Plus, the Anti-Saloon League hadn't yet penetrated the north woods, and wasn't likely to, which was another thing he admired about the area. They'd stopped at The Hollow, in Mellen, and ordered a beer, and as they talked a man walked in followed by a dog, a big dog, gray and white with brown patches, some mix of husky and shepherd or something of that kind, a deep-chested beast with a regal bearing and a joyful, jaunty carriage. Every person in the bar seemed to know the dog, who trotted around greeting the patrons.

"That's a fine looking animal," John Sawtelle remarked, watching it work the crowd for peanuts and jerky. He offered to buy the dog's owner a beer for the pleasure of an introduction.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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Undiscovered Country
Undiscovered Country

by Lin Enger

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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