Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874
Few first novels receive the kind of attention afforded David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The forty-nine-year-old writer’s initial effort won glowing reviews, reached the top of The New York Times best-seller list, and was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club, a guarantee of good word of mouth and brisk sales. A coming-of-age story, a dog tale, and a nostalgic look at America’s recent past, the book is also highly literary.
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After opening with a prologue set in South Korea during 1952, an episode that seems to have little relation to the rest of the novel until midway through, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle traces the evolution of the Sawtelle family’s dog-breeding enterprise. After John Sawtelle fails as a dairy farmer near Mellen, Wisconsin, in the 1920’s, he discovers he likes having the seven puppies of his dog, Violet, around, and he has a vision of breeding perfect dogs by following the theories of geneticist Gregor Mendel: “dogs so unlike the shepherds and hounds and retrievers and sled dogs he used as foundation stock they became known simply as Sawtelle dogs.”
Much of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle examines the disappointments of family life experienced by John’s son Gar, his wife Trudy, and their mute son Edgar during the early 1970’s. A foster child, Trudy has a strong need for family ties, and she is crushed by a miscarriage before Edgar is born in 1958. His muteness is a small price to pay for his survival. Then there is Gar’s estranged brother, Claude, who returns after an absence of many years to help with the dogs, despite fluctuating tensions between the brothers: “Edgar got the idea that Claude and his father had slipped without their knowing it into some irresistible rhythm of taunt and reply whose references were too subtle or too private to decipher.” Wroblewski explains the troubles between the brothers a bit at a time, and when matters seem resolved, the unexpected arrives. The narrative seems to flow smoothly for long periods only to backtrack upon itself with each new surprise.
Wroblewski describes the daily activities with the dogs in detail: feeding, training, exercising, playing, observing, cleaning their quarters in the barn. No time off is possible from “the work that never ended.” Because of the immaculate records they keep, Gar and Trudy have photographs of every dog they have raised but none of themselves. These records form a strong bond between Edgar and the past, which he explores in an effort to understand the present.
When Edgar is finally old enough to be given a litter to look after, he takes delight in naming them, consulting The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language to find fitting names: Baboo, Essay, Finch, Opal, Pout, Tinder, and Umbra. The boy counters his muteness with pleasure in the meanings and sounds of words. Language is a means of exerting some control over his life, and not being able to hear or read words when circumstances force him to run away with three dogs makes him feel even more isolated. As he ages and takes on more responsibilities, Edgar realizes how much he is like his father, “so certain he was right,” and comes to see the possibly malevolent Claude with Gar’s suspicious eyes, realizing there is “not one Claude but many.” Trudy’s acceptance of Claude’s presence leads to further tensions.
Because of Edgar’s muteness, the dogs must learn a modified version of the signs he uses to communicate with his parents, signs he first tests on Almondine, the family’s only pet. These signs become especially important when Edgar runs away. Much like Charles Frazier did in Cold Mountain (1997), whose style and pace The Story of Edgar Sawtelle resembles, Wroblewski shifts his narrative focus several times. Edgar’s adventure in the Wisconsin woods, similar to the homeward journey of Frazier’s hero, is the most tightly constructed and gripping part of the novel, as Edgar steals food from vacation cabins, hides from the police, and is injured in a freak accident. Again like Frazier, Wroblewski is an outstanding storyteller, embellishing his narrative with literary archetypes, such as the symbolic uses of fire and water, which can both purify or destroy.
Several of the dogs are almost as fully developed as the humans. Almondine assumes responsibility for the infant Edgar, instinctively realizing his silence means he needs extra care. His earliest memory is of her beside his crib. During the following years, she is always there to love, to help, even to scold, becoming like a second mother. Edgar exults in having different relationships with Trudy, Gar, and the dog: “If he managed to share one secret with his father and a different one with his mother and yet another with Almondine the world felt that much larger.”A mysterious stray dog spotted several times in the woods seems to be the reincarnation of an earlier Sawtelle dog and also has parallels with Claude.
Wroblewski’s style often echoes the short, simple declarative sentences of another Midwestern writer, Ernest Hemingway: “They walked into the dark kitchen together. The kitchen clock read 2:25. Almondine lay near the porch door.” Wroblewski’s evocation of nature, specifically the glories of the American Middle West, recall the descriptive writing of Hemingway in such stories as “The Big Two-Hearted River” (1925). In addition to conveying the sights, sounds, and smells of the land, Wroblewski presents rural Wisconsin as a calming, peaceful place until humans interfere. Edgar considers his home a self-contained world where everything has a degree of logic. When this is no longer true and he leaves, his universe expands in surprising ways. As in Hemingway’s story, nature offers the possibilities of escape and of healing. However, like Hemingway’s hero, Edgar must return to a more threatening reality.
Edgar identifies with Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but the major literary influence does not become clear until Gar’s death, with similarities to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601). Shakespeare’s play and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle share treatments of discord and suspicions within families, revenge, and the psychological turmoil of their protagonists. Edgar is Hamlet; Gar, or Edgar, Sr., is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, also named Hamlet; Trudy is Gertrude; Claude is Claudius; Page Papineau, the family veterinarian and business investor, is Polonius; his son, Glen, the sheriff, is Laertes; and Almondine, in an unusual twist, resembles Ophelia.
Wroblewski does not allow his homage to become predictably mechanical, with some character similarities and plot developments much stronger than others. For example, Edgar’s biggest dilemma, like Hamlet’s indecision, is “To wait and watch or to run away.” The Hamlet subplot, although significant, is also only a portion of a larger canvas on which Wroblewski paints his characters and their way of life. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s masterpiece is not essential to appreciating The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, though the novel’s conclusion will make more sense to those who know Hamlet’s story.
Wroblewksi’s prose is often poetic, as with this prophetic description of Gar: “As he passed through a stand of aspen saplings he seemed to shimmer into place between their trunks like a ghost.” A disused car gives “the impression of an animal that had crawled to within inches of its lair before expiring.” When John buys the farm where he will breed his dogs, he receives a telegram from his lawyer: “OFFER ACCEPTED SEE ADAMSKI RE PAPERS.” Edgar periodically looks at this document, and every time he takes out this telegram, a word falls off until only ACCEPTED is left. Wroblewski pays close attention to such details throughout the novel, making such minutiae reflect the larger picture.
Compared with such popular nonfiction dog books as John Grogan’s Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog (2005), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is full of touching moments but is generally restrained, more in keeping with the tone of Jon Katz’s A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me (2002). In addition to Almondine’s touching devotion to Edgar and her ability to experience an even deeper grief than the humans, owners bring their Sawtelle dogs to Gar’s funeral, both in tribute and in showing an awareness that these dogs have an active emotional life. Wroblewski makes the almost human qualities exhibited by the dogs, with their distinct personalities, credible by constantly reinforcing how they differ from ordinary dogs: “From the moment they opened their eyes the dogs were taught to watch and listen and trust. To think and choose. This was the lesson behind every minute of training. They were taught something beyond simple obedience: that through the training all things could be spoken.” In a pivotal scene late in the novel, some dogs are faced with making an important decision and, after seemingly weighing their options, make the right choice. Edgar both teaches the dogs and learns from them, becoming an unusually keen observer, a characteristic central to his quest to distinguish between possible versions of the truth. This quest leads him to using the dogs to stage a canine variation of “The Mousetrap” scene from Hamlet.
Wroblewski creates vivid characters with seeming ease. In addition to Edgar and Trudy, the most sympathetic characters, there is Henry Lamb, a lonely man Edgar meets well into his journey away from home. The guileless, trusting Henry serves as counterpoint to the moral confusion Edgar is fleeing. The way the dogs take to him proves he is a good man. Henry is, however, far from a sentimental creation: He is a forlorn defeatist who retreats from life after his fiancé rejects him for being too ordinary. He and Edgar help each other become wiser and more alive. The sequence in which Edgar cleans out Henry’s crammed, untidy shed only for his friend to decide to put everything back is a miniaturization of the novel’s treatment of the importance of work and the need to impose order on chaos.
Trudy tells Edgar about a theory of Doctor Frost, their family physician, that all people have flaws in their veins and arteries that can be fatal, though no one knows why only some are affected. These flaws are metaphors for the lives of Wroblewski’s damaged, imperfect characters, each of whom responds differently to the crises in their lives. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle celebrates the commonplace while gazing at the mysteries lurking within the ordinary. Wroblewski summarizes his theme after a series of important decisions have been made: “Life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive. You swam in a river of chance and coincidence. You clung to the happiest accidentsthe rest you let float by. . . . You looked around and discovered the most unusual thing in the world sitting there looking at you.”
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about the value of work, about balancing independence with the need for companionship, and it never pushes its themes too hard. Equally compelling as a family drama, an adventure story, and a murder mystery, the novel deserves its lavish praise.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 42
Booklist 104, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2008): 45.
Entertainment Weekly, June 13, 2008, p. 75.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 7 (April 1, 2008): 329.
Library Journal 133, no. 5 (March 15, 2008): 65.
New Statesman 137, no. 4907 (July 28, 2008): 51.
The New York Times, June 13, 2008, p. 23.
The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2008, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly 255, no. 7 (February 18, 2008): 132.
USA Today, June 19, 2008, p. D4.