David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008) explores the silent world of the novel’s protagonist, Edgar Sawtelle. Edgar lives in Wisconsin during the middle of the twentieth century. Born mute, he is a teenager who seems to prefer the language of dogs more than the words of the adults around him. From his earliest memories, his favorite job on the farm was to name the new puppies that were born there. He chooses names randomly from a dictionary. As he grows older, his connection with the dogs becomes more profound. He helps to train them through sign language.
Wroblewski begins his novel with Edgar’s grandfather, telling readers about how the dog farm began. When Edgar’s father, Gar, dies suspiciously, Edgar blames his uncle Claude, his father’s younger brother, who has meant nothing but trouble for the family. When Claude makes romantic overtures to Edgar’s mother, Trudy, Edgar is outraged.
The story is filled with loving family memories until Claude arrives. Claude spends most of his time in the barn or at the local bar. The details of Claude’s life are sketchy at best and Edgar finds Claude to be two-faced. The man presents his best side to Edgar’s mother. She falls for him, allowing him to fill in the vacant spaces left behind from her husband’s death. Edgar sees the other side of Claude, a side that Edgar finds dangerous.
When tensions become too strong between Edgar and Claude, Edgar takes his favorite dogs and runs away from home. For the story itself, this tension raises the level of curiosity for the reader. It is at this point that the novel takes on the form of a mystery or a sort of detective story. Edgar fears the police are looking for him because of an accidental death that he played a part in. Readers worry that Edgar might be caught because Claude is suggesting to local officials that Edgar committed murder. In the end, it is Edgar versus Claude—a fight to the finish. Unfortunately, there are no winners.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was Wroblewski’s first novel. It took him ten years to complete it. Literary critics praise the author’s writing, especially in the first half of the story. Some critics, however, have found the second half to be too artificially manipulated.
David Wroblewski took ten years to write his first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
The story is set in Wisconsin, near the farmland where Wroblewski once lived as a child. The time is somewhere in the 1970s, though the laid-back environment of the farm, which lies at the edge of a small town, gives the sense of a much earlier time.
Critics have pointed out, and Wroblewski has revealed, that at its simplest form this novel uses the framework of Shakespeare’s playHamlet. Though some critics go to great lengths to make the comparison, the basic elements that the play and the novel share are these: a son whose father is murdered by the father’s brother, who then beds the widow; the father appears to his son in ghost form to divulge his murderer’s identity; the son then seeks revenge.
The novel opens with a brief history of the lineage of the Sawtelle dogs.Edgar’s grandfather was the one who began the breed, with painstaking diligence. He sought dogs whose character he liked and slowly bred these desired traits until he came up with a dog that was intelligent, gentle, and trainable. The details of his decisions were recorded, filed, and enhanced as the breed evolved, down to Edgar’s father, Gar.
Gar’s brother, Claude, showed little interest in the dogs and moved away. However, as the story moves forward to Edgar’s fourteenth year, Claude shows up, needing a home. He sets himself up in the barn and helps around the farm until he and Gar get into a fight. Trudy, Gar’s wife, tells Edgar that she knows there was “bad blood” between Edgar’s father and Claude, but she is not sure what caused it.
Claude moves away and is seldom seen until Gar mysteriously dies.Edgar is in the barn with his father but can do nothing to help save his life. When Gar appears to Edgar as an apparition one stormy night, Gar leads Edgar to a syringe. Claude has been working at Dr. Papineau’s veterinary clinic and has access to drugs. Edgar suspects that Claude injected a drug into his father, causing his father’s heart to fail.
To let Claude know that he suspects Claude’s role in Gar’s death, Edgar cleverly trains his dogs to play out the death scene. One dog picks up a syringe and bumps into another dog, who then plays dead...
(The entire section is 937 words.)
In 1952 South Korea, a man walks in the rain among the narrow streets of Pusan in an unfamiliar district. He is the only serviceman in sight. He is searching for a sign showing a turtle with two snakes. The streets meander, and he is becoming confused. When it is past midnight, the man retraces his steps and finally sees the sign, looking exactly as Pak said it would. He looks for an alley opposite the sign and walks down it to a doorway with a red lantern. It is the door of an herbalist’s shop. He hears a recording of Doris Day singing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” He knocks on the door, which is opened by an old man dressed in simple clothes. The old man knows only a little English. He tells the serviceman to talk slowly.
The old man asks him if he has brought medicine, stating that he has money to pay for it. The serviceman explains that he is not looking for money. He explains that he is looking for a poison that will kill “rats” without the other rats becoming suspicious. It should look like a natural death. The old man points out that only God can take life away with no sign. The serviceman says that this is what he is looking for. Everyone has the power to take away life. It is only the method that is different. He wants a poison that will use God’s method.
A three-legged dog passes by outside in the rain. The old man asks the serviceman if it is his dog, but it is not. The old man goes in the back of his shop and returns with a small clay soup pot in one hand and a small bamboo box in the other. He sets the pot on the cobblestones in the street. From the bamboo box he withdraws a glass bottle, shaped like a perfume or ink bottle. The glass is crude and is sealed with wax. The old man picks away the wax, takes out a small reed cut into a needle, and dips the reed into the bottle. The serviceman sees a small drop shimmering on the point.
The old man calls to the dog, which comes to drink the...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Schultz, a former lumberman, gave up his trade when the chain broke on his truck and a man was killed by the falling timber right where he had been standing. Finding a property for sale deep in the Wisconsin woods, Schultz builds a home, but abandons it after five years. John Sawtelle is traveling through and sees a dog he likes. He arranges to trade puppies with the owner and discovers the property as he investigates the area. With his wife, John begins a kennel in which he breeds and trains dogs. John has two sons, one who stays on the farm (Gar) and one who leaves. Gar marries Trudy, who takes over the dog-training aspect of the business.
Gar and Trudy deeply love each other. The one tragedy that the young couple experiences is their difficulty in having a child. After two miscarriages, Trudy carries a baby almost to full term, but the baby arrives prematurely, stillborn. Gar builds a rough coffin, and they bury their baby near the house. As Gar is covering up the grave, he sees that Trudy is unconscious and takes her to the hospital. She recovers and returns home.
Gar paints a wooden cross for their baby’s grave. As he is taking it to the site, he sees a bundle of leaves in the stream, and from the leaves he hears a faint cry. He recovers the bundle to discover a puppy about three weeks old. Gar surmises that it might be a wolf cub. He takes it home to Trudy, who patiently tries to get it to eat, unsuccessfully. The pup dies, and Gar buries it near the grave of their baby. Trudy eventually brings a baby to full term and names him Edgar after his father. Soon, Gar and Trudy notice something wrong when the baby tries to cry, so they call the doctor.
Almondine, Gar and Trudy’s house dog, is aware that something is going to happen. She feels restless, separated from her kennel mates. She feels that she has nothing significant to do. When Edgar is born, Trudy warns Almondine not to lick the baby, but Almondine stays close. As Trudy sleeps, Almondine hears a small sound. She realizes that the baby is trying to cry but has no voice. Edgar is born mute. Almondine awakens Trudy, who feeds the baby. Almondine is satisfied; she now has a job to do.
Part 1, Chapters 3-4 Summary
Trudy and Gar take Edgar to several doctors, who put him through several tests without finding any cause for his inability to speak. Finally, Trudy decides she does not want to put her baby through a childhood of poking and prodding. She takes him to an old woman, Ida Paine, who tells her that he will never learn to speak but that he can use his hands to communicate. Discouraged, Trudy returns home. One day a woman drives up and introduces herself as Louisa Wilkes, the aunt of one of the Sawtelles’ neighbors who is watching one of their dogs. She is not sure why she is there, but she explains that she was directed by Ida Paine to visit the Sawtelles. She examines Edgar, asking Trudy what information the doctors have shared with...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 5-6 Summary
A week after the storm, Gar goes on a long drive to pick up his brother, Claude, and bring him back. Edgar, knowing he will not be allowed to go along for the ride, helps his mother clean up the spare room, which had been used as a work room. Trudy explains that Edgar has never seen his uncle, and she has seen him only once. When Gar returns with Claude, Edgar sees the resemblance between the two men and reflects that this is what it means to have a brother.
During the night, Edgar awakens and sees Claude going down to the kennel. He watches the lights come on and manages to sneak down the stairs and out the back door without being discovered. He finds Claude lying on the floor with a bottle of alcohol. When Claude...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Gar tells Edgar that when Iris has puppies, that litter will be all his. Edgar will be responsible for the puppies' whelping (birth), feeding, training, and placement in new homes. Edgar is excited and grateful for the opportunity. School is almost out, so he hopes that Iris will wait until summer vacation begins.
On Saturday, the first day of vacation, Edgar watches Iris closely. She paces and seems restless all day. Edgar wants to stay with her, but Gar tells him that this will make her nervous and might cause her to eat her puppies in order to keep them from others. Edgar checks on her every half hour, but there is no progress all day. After supper, Gar tells Edgar to gather up the needed supplies and arrange them...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Part 1, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Edgar listens as his father and uncle fight, and then to the sound of the truck being driven away. He goes downstairs, but it is dark. His mother hears him and tells him not to ask his father a lot of questions. Edgar asks her if Claude is coming back. Trudy says that he will not, not after this fight. She tells Edgar that they tried to help Claude, but Claude did not want help. The next morning, Gar looks visibly embarrassed at having been in a fight.
The fall of the year is relatively mild, with snow holding off until the holidays. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are spent alone with the family. Trudy teaches Edgar to dance until Gar cuts in. In January, there is a thaw, and much of the snow melts. Edgar makes a great...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Doctor Papineau spends the night at the Sawtelles’ home, sleeping in the spare bedroom while Edgar and Trudy sleep downstairs in the living room. Edgar feels that he is somehow keeping watch over his family. Before going to sleep, Trudy makes some calls, including one to Claude. She finds it more difficult than she had imagined. In the morning, Trudy and Edgar go to the sheriff’s office so that Edgar can give his report to Glen, the sheriff. Edgar has difficulty remembering details. He knows that he was upstairs in the barn training some of the dogs and could not hear anything going on downstairs. He does not remember actually finding Gar, but he knows that he must have. He explains that Gar was not yet dead, but he could not...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 3-4 Summary
A few weeks after Gar’s funeral, Edgar begins to have dreams about his father. In Edgar’s dreams, Gar is doing simple, ordinary things, such as going for the mail or walking along the fence lines. One night Edgar dreams that he and his father are walking through the springtime woods, even though in reality there is snow on the ground. Gar has told him something important, but Edgar cannot remember what it was. He decides he does not want to tell his mother about his dreams; instead, he intends to keep them as if they were memories stolen back from time. She can tell that Edgar has been having dreams of his father, but she does not push him to tell her about them.
Trudy instructs Edgar more fully on the art of...
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 5-6 Summary
Trudy begins to cough badly. She picks up Edgar at school and proceeds to Doctor Frost’s office. Doctor Frost tells her that she has pneumonia. It is on the verge of being serious enough that he thinks about sending her to the hospital. She promises to follow his instructions, which include complete bed rest for a week to ten days. Doctor Frost warns her that if Edgar gets pneumonia, it could get very serious because he is unable to adequately cough to clear his lungs. The two of them must be separated as much as possible. Trudy calls Edgar’s school to get him excused for the rest of the week.
Edgar still dreams about his father. One night he dreams that he could actually speak but did not on the day his father...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 7-8 Summary
When Claude comes into the house, he sees how ill Trudy is. He rushes her to the doctor, despite the early hour. Doctor Frost gives her some stronger medication, and Trudy begins finally to improve. Claude comes each morning and stays all day, taking care of Trudy and the dogs. He does not stay for supper. Epi improves, but she is skittish. Edgar relives it all, exacerbating his guilt.
Trudy tells Edgar about her miscarriages before she gave birth to him. She does not compare that grief to losing Gar. She is grateful for the twenty years that she had with her husband and knows that if they lived to be a hundred, it would not be enough. She tries to get Edgar to talk to her, telling him again that Gar’s death was not...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Edgar awakens in the morning, finding himself still in the kennel. The smells overpower him, and he only gradually remembers the events of the night before. He steps outside and finds that the rain has stopped. He finds the syringe, shattered in a puddle. He takes the pieces and goes up the road to throw them into an old silo. He returns home, circling the house, not wanting to go in yet. He climbs up into a tree, where he watches the house. He can see the window over the kitchen sink, the curtains parted. He sees Almondine come into the kitchen, apparently all right from her fight with Epi. He sees his mother come out from the bedroom, with Claude coming soon behind her. Claude sits in Gar’s chair to drink his coffee. Edgar is...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 3-4 Summary
Edgar lies awake, thinking about what his father’s ghost had been trying to sign to him: H-A-A-something-I. Thinking more, he realizes that the third letter was most likely a C instead of an A. He still, however, does not understand what his father was trying to say. He goes downstairs where his mother apologizes for snapping at him the night before. He tells her that he cannot sleep. He is going out to the barn to think up some names for the puppies.
On a piece of paper, Edgar tries to guess what the missing letter is, like in the game of Hangman. He is reasonably sure that the fourth letter was an H, making the word HACHI. He thinks it might be part of a word that he remembers seeing someplace in his grandfather’s...
(The entire section is 578 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 5-6 Summary
Trudy is going into town and asks Edgar if he would like to accompany her. He declines, and his mother, discouraged, says that someday he will be her son again. After Trudy has left, Claude approaches Edgar and asks him if he is able to drive the truck. Edgar says he cannot, and Claude thinks this is a shame. He wants to teach Edgar how to drive, but Trudy is more in favor of Edgar’s taking a Driver’s Education class. When Claude offers to give Edgar a driving lesson while Trudy is gone, Edgar agrees. As the two get into Claude’s Impala, Claude gives him some rudimentary lessons. Edgar sees this as an opportunity and floors the gas pedal. The car races off, reaching seventy-five miles an hour on the gravel road. Claude tries...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Edgar bicycles into Popcorn Corners, carrying the picture of Claude and Forte in his pocket. He goes into Ida Paine’s grocery store, greets her, and then walks along the aisles. He asks Ida for a Coke. Ida talks to Edgar about his father. She says that she had seen Gar only a week before his death and knew at that time that it might be the last time she saw him. She describes it as a “juice” that flows from the person when she touches someone. She tells Edgar to show her what he brought her. He shows her the photograph of Claude and Edgar. Ida says that she has not seen Claude for a long time, though she remembers him, especially the dogfights. She hands back the photograph, crushing it in Edgar’s fist. She tells him to...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Edgar walks deep into the woods with the three dogs: Essay, Tinder, and Baboo. Soaked by the rain and the dew, Edgar tries to dry off his clothes but is unsuccessful. He tries to find food for himself and the dogs, but there is nothing around. He has to stay off the road to avoid being seen. At one spot, he hears a car approach. Hiding in the bushes, he sees that it is Glen Papineau, who calls out for him. Glen drives off, and Edgar crosses the road and continues into the woods. The dogs find some turtle eggs to eat, and Edgar finds a few blueberries. The cabins he comes across are locked, but he knows that a woodsman would not leave any food inside to attract wild animals. On the third day, Edgar sees a cabin that looks occupied....
(The entire section is 442 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 3-4 Summary
As Edgar and the dogs cross the sunflower field, Edgar notices a water tower with the name “Lute” painted on it. He approaches an isolated farmhouse and finds that it is unlocked. Entering, he leisurely takes food, giving some of it to the dogs. He looks specifically for insect repellant to deal with the mosquitoes but finds none. When he is satiated, Edgar leaves and begins walking along the train tracks. Suddenly, Tinder yelps in pain. At first, Edgar thinks the dog has been bitten by a snake, but he discovers a jagged piece of glass in his paw. Cutting his own thumb, Edgar manages to hold Tinder down and extricate the piece of glass. Both his cut and the dog’s are sufficiently deep that Edgar thinks they might need...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 5-6 Summary
While Henry is at work, Edgar cleans out his shed. Filled with a variety old farm equipment and machinery, the shed gives Edgar a chance to make up for stealing from Henry before Tinder’s accident. Henry says he wants to put an old car that is now sitting on blocks in the yard into the shed where it belongs. Edgar divides the trash into burn, sell, and save piles. As Edgar cleans, he sees a figure in the shadows out of the corner of his eyes. Rushing out of the shed, he looks back but sees nothing. The figure reappears as he works but disappears if he looks straight at it. From a sideways glance, Edgar can make out an old farmer who begins to speak. He explains that the trash is due to his wife, who made him save everything....
(The entire section is 491 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Glen Papineau is having difficulty adjusting to his father’s death. He is drinking more, even in public, which he knows is not a good idea for a sheriff to do. He boxed up his father’s office and tries to sell it, but there are no takers. He meets Claude Sawtelle in a bar, and the two begin talking about Doctor Papineau. Claude remembers “The Hot Mix Duck Massacre,” in which a flock of ducks mistook the newly paved main street for a stream. Many ducks were killed, but some were only injured. Doctor Papineau treated them, and the ducks followed him around while they healed.
Claude wants to buy some of Doctor Papineau’s medicines. Claude had previously worked with the vet in treating the Sawtelle dogs so that...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Edgar and Essay stay near the spot where they had spent the Fourth of July. Edgar catches fish to keep them supplied with food, though he eventually gets very tired of it. Every night for three nights, Edgar and the dog change their camp location, moving into the low hills around the lake. Autumn is approaching, and the days are getting shorter. One evening, four nights after leaving Henry, while they were sitting by the fire, Edgar sees a pair of eyes reflecting the flames. As the figure steps out, he realizes that it is Forte, the stray dog he had seen so long ago at home. Forte does not come near the fire, but he eats the fish that Edgar leaves for him. Essay joins Forte out hunting in the woods, often rejecting the food that...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 1-2 Summary
Edgar and Essay sit at the edge of the field and watch the house. They see no movement, so Edgar walks up to the barn where the dogs explode in excitement. After feeding Essay, Edgar goes into the house, which is empty. He wonders where Almondine is, since she did not come out to greet him. He wanders through the house, then returns to the kitchen and eats. He leaves a note stating that he was there and will return in the morning. He leaves the note, as well as the photo of Claude and Forte, on the kitchen table, and goes back to the barn. Grabbing some burlap bags, he heads to the woods with Essay, fixing a spot for the night where he can watch the house.
Wandering over to the family cemetery, Edgar sees the graves of...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 3-4 Summary
Edgar sits beside Almondine’s grave and looks at the house. He remembers when Claude first came to stay with them and told Edgar how he and Gar used to hide cigarettes and alcohol under a floorboard. Edgar had found the floorboard but saw nothing under it except a bottle cap. Then he remembers Ida Paine telling him to “look for the bottle.” He thinks about the shape of the bottle he had visualized in Ida’s hand. In the dark, he goes back to the barn. He hears a dull buzz coming from the telephone. It is only people on the party line. He forces himself to go past the spot where Doctor Papineau had lain. He finds the floorboard where he had found the bottle cap, but it is nailed down. He pries it open with the knife Henry...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 5-6 Summary
Edgar has hidden himself high atop the stack of hay bales in the mow. He listens to the actions below in the kennel, where his mother is working with the pups. He hears the sound of the back door as Claude goes inside the house. He freezes when he hears footsteps climbing the stairs but relaxes when they retreat down below. He takes a drink of water from the coffee can then urinates in the corner. When he cannot take the heat anymore, he climbs down the straw and takes a breath of the cooler air. He worries that Claude has heard him. He decides he will wait until sunset for any further action.
Back on top of the bales, Edgar hears Claude enter the vestibule door of the kennel. Claude calls out twice to him, but Edgar...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 7-8 Summary
Edgar cools off in the creek and then finds the old dying oak tree where he once saw Forte. He hopes the dog will return there, and he is fairly sure that Claude does not know anything about the tree, never having walked the fence as Gar and Edgar had done. The image of Doctor Papineau dying keeps coming into his mind. He knows it is fruitless to wish it had never happened, but he wishes he could talk to Glen. He believes he will not be able to stay until he does so, though he is not quite sure what sentiment he should express to the son of the man he killed. He thinks how closely he came to going back to the house with his mother; he wanted to tell her about his time on the run, about Henry Lamb and the dogs, about the old man in...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 9-10 Summary
Edgar slips into the barn and puts Essay into the pen with her littermates. He begins searching for the bottle Claude had hidden. Because Claude was handling it so carefully, Edgar reasons that he would not keep it in the house; he also did not seem to want to throw it away after all this time. Edgar looks in the medicine cabinet but finds nothing.
Suddenly he feels a hand holding a cloth over his mouth. He smells an odor and recognizes it as Prestone, which is almost pure ether. He hears Glen’s voice telling him to wait. Edgar tries holding his breath but, as Glen points out, this will only make him breathe deeper. As Edgar slips into semiconsciousness, Glen carries him to the barn door. When Glen sets him down to...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 11-12 Summary
Edgar frantically releases the dogs from the pens. Most rush out into the yard past the silo, but Essay stays beside him. When he runs his hand over her back, he can feel patches of singed fur. He signals her to go to the others and then returns to the barn. He meets his mother, who asks him if the pups are out. They are not, so he runs back into the barn, putting out small fires as he goes. He releases the pups and follows them out. He asks his mother if she called the fire department, but the phone lines (which were wired through the barn) have burned.
Suddenly Edgar remembers his father lying on the ground, which triggers the memory of the files that are the sole record of the Sawtelle breed. Trudy asks why Glen...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 13-14 Summary
Edgar is frustrated with himself that he did not think of using a wheelbarrow before. The smoke is getting thicker, so he must drop to the floor to get a breath of fresh air. He rises and continues shoveling files into the wheelbarrow. He glances up when Claude enters but keeps on removing files. Claude’s expression is blank. Edgar cannot forget what he saw in the mow. He did not return with a plan in mind just to reveal the truth about Claude’s implication in Gar’s death.
Claude continues to unload the last file cabinet, causing the wheelbarrow to quickly become overloaded. Edgar wheels it out and dumps the files before returning to the milk house. Trudy calls out to him to let it go, but he cannot. He cannot see...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 15-16 Summary
Edgar feels something on his neck, as if something has fallen on him. He reaches up to feel but finds nothing. He feels an icy wave radiate down through his back and limbs. He turns and sees Claude sitting at the base of the door, looking frightened and panting through his mouth. Edgar notices that the smoke suddenly triples. He knows he is being overcome, and he looks for some kind of implement. He finds a pitchfork and jabs it up at the ceiling. It strikes only wood. He moves a little and tries again, and he is rewarded with a feeling of movement. He slides the hatch to the side. Smoke eddies through the hatch, just as he knew it would. He still does not see any flames.
As he lies on the floor, Edgar thinks of Glen....
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 17-18 Summary
Trudy waits for either Claude or Edgar to emerge from the barn. She calls until her throat is raw as she thrashes against Glen’s hold. She begins to think that it is not Glen who is holding her to the ground but rather a black vine growing out of the ground, enveloping her and everything around her. She is unable to look away from the horror that is before her. After a long while, she imagines the black vine retreating. She watches the tiny flames along the shingled roof of the barn grow into a massive fire, sending off a pillar of smoke. She hears a low, prolonged groan and realizes that it is the central roof beam beginning to sag. Where before there had been nothing but smoke, now there is nothing but flame. As the heat...
(The entire section is 421 words.)