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.