Friday, August 3, 2012

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
HarperCollins Publishers, 2008
Hardcover, 576 pages
ISBN-13: 9780061768064

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm - and into Edgar's mother's affections." Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires - spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

My Thoughts:
In David Wroblewski's debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the Sawtelle family raises and trains their own special breed of dogs, called, appropriately enough, Sawtelle Dogs. Edgar Sawtelle, son of Gar and Trudy, was born mute and communicates by signing. Just like the dogs they raise, he can hear but can only communicate through his actions.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle deserves all the accolades it received when it was first published. Certainly, it clearly retells the story of Hamlet with a cast of human and canine characters and set in rural Wisconsin.  It certainly is a tragedy, in the truest literary definition. There is a betrayal, poison, foreshadowing, murder, and ghosts. The comparison to Hamlet was easily evident, but I also felt that it begged a comparison to the mythological quests of other heroes.
For those familiar with Hamlet: Edgar is Hamlet; Trudy is his mother, Gertrude; Claude is Claudius; Gar is the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father; Doc Papineau is Polonius; his son Glen is Laertes;  Almondine is Ophelia; Tinder and Baboo are courtiers Rosencrantz; Forte is Fortinbras; and Essay is Horatio.

While a long novel, I felt like the pace was strong and the story held my rapt attention and stayed compelling. Wroblewski's use of  language was wonderful and lyrical.
Okay, I really loved this novel even though I was crying like a baby every time we heard from Almondine (a dog). Perhaps I am still recovering from the death of my dog a year ago (who was a male dog but I pictured him every time Almondine was in the story) but... I'm not sure why I put off reading this novel for so long.  This is a great novel.
Very Highly Recommended. 


That spring their dog, Violet, who was good but wild-hearted, had dug a hole under the fence when she was in heat and run the streets with romance on her mind. They’d ended up chasing a litter of seven around the backyard. He could have given all the pups away to strangers, and he suspected he was going to have to, but the thing was, he liked having those pups around. Liked it in a primal, obsessive way. Violet was the first dog he’d ever owned, and the pups were the first pups he’d ever spent time with, and they yapped and chewed on his shoelaces and looked him in the eye. At night he found himself listening to records and sitting on the grass behind the house and teaching the pups odd little tricks they soon forgot while he and Mary talked. pg. 10-11

 When he wanted to, Edgar’s grandfather could radiate a charming enthusiasm, one of the reasons Mary had been attracted to him in the first place. He could tell a good story about the way things were going to be. Besides, they had been living in her parents’ house for over a year and she was as eager as he to get out on her own. They completed the purchase of the land by mail and telegram.

This the boy Edgar would come to know because his parents kept their most important documents in an ammunition box at the back of their bedroom closet. The box was military gray, with a big clasp on the side, and it was metal, and therefore mouseproof. When they weren’t around he’d sneak it out and dig through the contents. Their birth certificates were in there, along with a marriage certificate and the deed and history of ownership of their land.  pg. 16

His grandfather and grandmother moved to the farm without incident, and by Edgar's time it had been the Sawtelle place for as long as anyone could remember. pg. 19

Always, Edgar's father was more interested in what the dog chose to do, a predilection he'd acquired from his own father. pg. 21

What was there to do with such an infant child but worry over him? Gar and Trudy worried that he would never have a voice. His doctors worried that he didn't cough. And Almondine simply worried whenever the boy was out of her sight, though he never was for long. pg. 36

"But how can I teach him how to sign?" Trudy asked. "I don't know how myself."
"Then you will learn, together," Mrs. Wilkes said. "At first, you only need to know enough to talk with Edgar in the simplest ways."
"Which are?"
"Which are to tell him you love him. To say, here is food. To name things: Dog. Bird. Daddy. Mama. Sky. Cloud. Just like any child. Show him how to ask for things he wants by moving his hands in that sign. Show him how to ask for more of whatever he wants" - and here she bounced the fingertips of both hands together as she talked, to demonstrate - "and later, when the time comes to make sentences, you'll already have learned how to do that." pg. 44

His father starts the next page. He lies back and moves his hands through the air to the sound of his father's voice. Thinking about words. The shapes of words. pg. 48


Dreamybee said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this book-I'm sure it would be difficult to read after the loss of a pet. :( I loved Almondine!

I felt like Wroblewski's writing was very stark, and I thought that worked very well to make the emotional moments that much more striking, like they just sort of sneaked up on you when you weren't looking.

Lori L said...

This really was a great book - and the quality of the writing will make it a memorable book.