MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Wisconsin and Minnesota are the latest settings for modern-day versions of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in novel form. The novels are "Undiscovered Country" and "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." That second book, at 562 pages, might not seem like a light beach read, but the debut novel is poised to be a hit. One week after the novel was published, it was already into its seventh printing. NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr has this story about both novels and how the prince of Denmark becomes a Midwesterner.
JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: Both authors say they didn't' set out to simply update "Hamlet." David Wroblewski is the author of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." He says he wanted to change the rules, feeling more obligated to be original than faithful to Shakespeare.
Mr. DAVID WROBLEWSKI (Author): The exercise became how to subvert that as many ways as I could to look for white space in Hamlet's story, to look for ways to invert things.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Gone is Elsinore Castle and the Danish royal family, moved to Wisconsin farm. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Edgar is mute from birth. He communicates with his parents and the dogs they breed and train using sign language. Though there are no soliloquies, Edgar is gifted with words, naming all the dogs after searching through a well-worn dictionary.
Mr. WROBLEWSKI: Hamlet is hyper verbal. He can talk circles around everyone else around him. And in Edgar's case, I wanted him to be hyper-observant. 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.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The other new "Hamlet"-inspired novel is "Undiscovered Country" by Lin Enger. He sets his story in the fictional northern Minnesota Town of Battle Point. The book begins with what appears to be a hunting accident. Enger says the scene occurred to him more than a decade ago, as he was up in a tree deer hunting with his brothers.
Mr. LIN ENGER (Author): I heard a shot, and I just had this picture in my mind of a kid, probably 16 years old, sitting in the stand like I was and hearing a shot like that, feeling that something was wrong and getting down out of the tree, running toward the sound of the shot and finding his father dead on the floor of the woods.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The boy, Jesse Matson, doesn't believe that his father would commit suicide. Enger says it wasn't until he actually wrote down that scene that he realized it mirrored the beginning of "Hamlet" and decided to use the play as a starting point.
Mr. ENGER: To find out whether my character, given the some dilemma that Hamlet faces, would make similar decisions.
FREYMANN-WEYR: In both of the new novels, there is suspicion, betrayal and an uncle close at hand to offer help - and more - to his brother's widow. Shakespeare's work has long been adapted and even been set in the American Midwest before. Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Thousand Acres" told the story of King Lear on a farm in Iowa. Author David 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 points to Rudyard Kipling's "Mowgli Stories" about a boy living in the wild as another major influence. He explains the book's likeness to "Hamlet" this way.
Mr. WROBLEWSKI: I think of the relationship between Edgar's story and Hamlet's story as a refolded piece of origami. 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. But it is primarily a frog.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The big themes of "Hamlet" can withstand a lot of folding and refolding. Author Lin Enger.
Mr. ENGER: Vengeance versus justice, or vengeance versus forgiveness is probably the oldest moral dilemma that human beings face, and I think they can serve as a thematic impulse for stories set in any culture.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Hamlet's story, after all, wasn't new when Shakespeare made it his own.
Mr. ENGER: This is what storytellers do. They take old stories, they change the proportions and they change the elements around in ways that are meaningful to them.
FREYMANN-WEYR: And sometimes that means surrounding the prince of Denmark with a kennel full of dogs or having him hunt deer from a tree in Minnesota.
Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.