For our “Staff Picks” series, we invite members of the Eerdmans staff (affectionately known around here as “Eerdfolks”) to choose their favorite EBYR titles — old and new — and tell you about them in their own words.
Our post this morning comes from internet marketing assistant Philip Zoutendam.
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I recognize that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment isn’t the best recommendation for young readers. The book’s moral is wholesome and even beautiful — just the sort of thing you want your kids to find in books — but its subject is axe murder.
So, for a more age-appropriate read, I’ll recommend Edgar Wants to Be Alone instead. This is also a book about the pathology of self-inflicted isolation and the resulting self-inflicted punishment — but this one has barnyard animals and lovely pictures, and no one gets hurt . . . well, much.
Edgar is a rat, and as the title says, he wants very much to be alone. He tries to isolate himself (much like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment), living alone and forbidding anyone to disturb him, and he succeeds: he makes himself so onerous that the other farm animals pretend not to see him when they cross his path.
This is exactly what causes his problem. One day Edgar becomes convinced that a worm is following him. Although, as the narrator says, “a worm having fun following a rat . . . wasn’t such a big deal,” to Edgar it’s a huge deal. He’s “not exactly an ordinary rat,” the narrator reminds us: he’s so unused to company, so out of touch with the world of others, that ordinary fun and games and a curious companion throw him into a tizzy. He wants to be alone, darn it!
Except that Edgar can’t solve his problem alone. His persistent plots and evasive maneuvers can’t shake the equally persistent worm. So Edgar finally tries to enlist the help of some other animals — a mole, a woodpecker, a pig — and here’s where his problem gets even worse.
The others don’t see things the same way as Edgar (quite literally). There’s no worm, they tell him. Give it up, they warn him. But he just can’t take their advice. Edgar thinks he’s the ordinary one and everyone else has it wrong. “That mole is totally nearsighted!” Edgar thinks. “Hammering on wood has made that woodpecker go soft in the head,” Edgar grumbles. “All of those days spent sleeping in the mud . . . must have affected his eyes,” he says of the pig.
So Edgar goes back to being alone — alone with the worm, alone with his problems. And of course, Edgar, Edgar’s worm, and Edgar’s problems aren’t really separate things. There’s really only Edgar himself.
There’s no real crime in this tale — but there is some comical punishment in the tale’s, err, tail end. For readers still a little young for Russian existentialist novels, this is a fun and funny book about the perils of self-isolation. Misanthropes like Edgar, it reminds us, are really just hurting themselves.