The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Summary

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a novel by David Wroblewski that reimagines Shakespeare's Hamlet on a dog farm in Wisconsin. Edgar, the main character, suspects his uncle Claude of having murdered Gar, Edgar's father.

  • Edgar lives on the dog farm his grandfather founded. He was born mute, but has a strong affinity with the dogs his family breeds.

  • Edgar's father dies suddenly of heart failure. When his estranged uncle Claude returns to the farm shortly after, Edgar suspects foul play.

  • In his quest to prove Claude's guilt, Edgar accidentally kills Claude's former employer. Edgar and Claude both ultimately die in a fire.

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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 980 words.)

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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 on the barn floor. When the dog with the syringe bumps into Claude’s leg, Claude jerks away. This is the sign Edgar was waiting for, believing that the look on Claude’s face is pure guilt.

Tensions rise between Edgar and Claude. Edgar is adamantly against his mother showing any affection toward Claude. When he suspects that his mother and Claude are developing a sexual relationship, Edgar refuses to sleep in the same house. So he makes a bed in the barn.Trudy does not fully understand Edgar’s defiance toward Claude. She misunderstands Edgar, believing he merely is against Claude’s attempting to take Gar’s place. Trudy tries to explain how she needs Claude on the farm for many different reasons if they hope to keep the dog breeding business thriving.

Tempers flare, and one day, acting out in anger, Edgar mistakenly pushes Dr. Papineau down a set of stairs, sending him to his death. Trudy tells Edgar to run away until she sorts out all the details of this accident. Edgar packs some food and flees with some of the dogs he has personally trained. They live in the forest, walking long distances and stealing food from summer vacation cabins when they are desperate. As time passes, they grow weak, maimed, and almost starved. When one of the dogs becomes hurt and cannot walk, Edgar takes a chance by asking a stranger for help. The stranger’s name is Henry. Henry is cautiously willing to help them for a short period of time, but then he comes to really like Edgar and his dogs. Henry lavishly feeds them and gives the dogs time to heal. Edgar, worried that Glen, the policeman who is looking for him, will find him if he stays in one place for too long, wants to cross into Canada. Henry offers to drive Edgar to the northern border. But along the way, Edgar changes his mind and decides to go back home.

Still afraid of Claude and wanting to find the evidence that will prove Claude killed his father, Edgar leaves a note for his mother to find. Then he hides in the woods. Claude finds the note and tells Glen that Edgar is back. Glen plans on capturing Edgar by knocking the boy out with a cloth soaked in ether. Glen sneaks up on Edgar as the boy is searching the barn for evidence. To win his release from Glen, Edgar throws some lime in Glen’s face. The powder blinds Glen and Edgar gets away.However, the bottle of ether spills and the barn is eventually engulfed in flames. To save the Sawtelle files on the lineage of the dogs (Edgar’s grandfather’s and his father’s life work), Edgar rushes through the flames. Claude sees Edgar and follows him into the barn. In the same file case as the dogs’ records is the bottle of poison that Claude had stolen. While Edgar is busy gathering the files, Claude fills a syringe with the poison and injects it into Edgar. Overcome by the smoke, Claude falls shortly after Edgar does, and both die in the fire.


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