In David Wroblewski’s novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the canine named Almondine is a constant presence in newly-born Edgar’s life. In Wroblewski’s narrative, Almondine is the product of generations of dog-breeding, dating to Edgar’s grandfather, John, who was fascinated by dogs to the point of obsession, breeding them, in the words of Wroblewski’s narrator, “dogs so unlike the shephards and hounds and retrievers and sled dogs he used as foundation stock they became known simply as Sawtelle dogs.” From this lineage would come Almondine, and the birth of Edgar would give this particular canine a special role in the child’s development.
Almondine is an integral part of the Sawtelle family; as much a part of this small unit as John and Trudy and their new-born baby, Edgar. It was Almondine who served an almost mystical role in the Sawtelle home, her animal instincts presaging developments in Wroblewski’s narrative. In an early chapter titled, appropriately enough, “Almondine,” the story’s narrator describes the dog’s curiosity born of a type of sixth sense that something was going to happen despite her inability to ascertain precisely what it is that will happen. The chapter begins as follows:
“Eventually, she understood the house was keeping a secret from her. All that winter and all through the spring, Almondine had known something was going to happen, but no matter where she looked she couldn’t find it. Sometimes, when she entered a room, there was the feeling that the thing that was going to happen had just been there, and she would stop and pant and peer around while the feeling seeped away as mysteriously as it had arrived.”
The mysterious development would, we learn, be the introduction into the Sawtelle home of Edgar. As the reader discovers, much of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is actually told from the dog’s perspective. Every development is presaged by Almondine’s premonitions of change, including the dog’s discovery of Edgar’s disability, his inability to speak. Noting the dog’s intuitive connection to her owners/family, the author writes:
“Somehow, Almondine concluded that they were worried about the baby, that something wasn’t right. And yet, she could see that the baby was fine: he squirmed, he breathed, he slept.”
So, we know form early-on that Almondine will play a major role in Edgar’s growth from baby to infant to child to budding teenager. Almondine is more than just Edgar’s companion, and a crucial means of communication for this mute boy. She becomes during the course of the story a symbiotic part of Edgar’s soul. Almondine, of course, dies, hit by a gravel truck, but the dog’s relationship to Edgar remains a constant theme in Wroblewski’s story, the visceral connection between dog and boy. In perhaps the novel’s most poignant passage, the narrator, in the last of the chapters titled “Almondine” (there are three spread-out through the novel), emphasizes once again the depth of this relationship. Having cryptically described Almondine’s death, Wroblewski now ends this chapter with the following:
“She stood broadside in the gravel and turned her head and asked her question. Asked if it had seen her boy. Her essence. Her soul. But if the traveler understood, it showed no sign.”
[Note: Wroblewski confirms that Almondine died when hit by a gravel truck in an interview with Oprah Winfrey: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/What-Happens-to-Almondine-Edgar-Sawtell-Video]
Still later, as the story progresses, Almondine having died, the perspective reverts back to that of Edgar, and the emotional connection between boy and dog is again, and again, revealed, as when Edgar contemplates the emotional vacuum that exists in his heart—a vacuum that cannot be filled by the other dogs in his life:
“And most ferociously, he missed Almondine. Her image appeared accompanied by a spasm of pure wretchedness. The dogs with him were fine dogs, astonishing dogs, but they weren’t Almondine, who bore his soul.”
And, once more for emphasis, in the chapter titled “Return”:
“Now Almondine occupied his thoughts. He hadn’t seen her for two months or more and suddenly it felt like he’d been severed from some fundament of his being. . .Others dreamed of finding a person in the world whose soul was made in their mirror image, but she and Edgar had been conceived nearly together, grown up together, and however strange it might be, she was his other.”
There is plenty of story left in Wroblewski’s novel when Almondine dies, but the dog remains an important presence in the story that continues past her death. The boy and the dog are one, and her physical absence cannot eliminate her spiritual presence. Near the novel’s conclusion—a tragic denouement reminiscent, as is the novel’s main plot, of the Shakespearean tragedy that inspired it—Edgar is also dead, burned to death in the barn fire.
Almondine is “forced to develop” while Edgar is gone because an integral part of her soul is departed. Many readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle concluded that the dog died essentially of a broken heart after Edgar left home. Certainly, the narrative suggests such a cause of death for Almondine. As noted, however, Wroblewski himself has stated that Almondine died after being hit by the truck. It is noteworthy, however, that, consistent with the nature of dogs when confronted by the departure of the one person in a family with whom the dog had a special connection, Almondine does grow close to Claude, Gar having disappeared from the dog’s life. Wroblewski’s story, however, is deliberately vague. What we can conclude is that the separation of boy and dog left a gaping wound in the souls of both, and their eventual reunion in the afterlife is a very minor salve to that wound.