The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)