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The Story of Edgar Sawtelleby David Wroblewski
The perfect book to curl up with on a blustery afternoon, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a not-so-simple tale of a Wisconsin boy and his dogs. An eloquent exploration of both inner and outer landscapes, this novel will wind about your psyche and will haunt you long after the last page.
Synopses & Reviews
Sit. Stay. Read. The dog days of summer are nigh, and here is a big-hearted novel you can fall into, get lost in and finally emerge from reluctantly, a little surprised that the real world went on spinning while you were absorbed. You haven't heard of the author. David Wroblewski is a 48-year-old software developer in Colorado, and this is his first novel. It's being released with... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the kind of hoopla once reserved for the publishing world's most established authors. No wonder: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is an enormous but effortless read, trimmed down to the elements of a captivating story about a mute boy and his dogs. That sets off alarm bells, I know: Handicapped kids and pets can make a toxic mix of sentimentality. But Wroblewski writes with such grace and energy that Edgar Sawtelle never succumbs to that danger. Inspired improbably by the plot of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," this Midwestern tale manages to be both tender and suspenseful. The story takes place in a small Wisconsin town where Gar and Trudy Sawtelle happily raise and train their own unusual breed of dogs. The time is the early 1970s, but Wroblewski casts the setting in the sepia tones of an earlier period, as though cut off from the modern age. Their only child is an endearing boy named Edgar, who arrived 14 years ago after a string of miscarriages that almost crushed his mother's spirit. Edgar cannot speak or make any sounds, but he's otherwise healthy. To his grateful parents, "it didn't matter what in him was special and what ordinary. He was alive. ... Compared to that, silence was nothing." He quickly develops a rich facility with words and communicates in a mixture of standard American Sign Language and his family's own private gestures, "a language in which everything important could be said." And, to a remarkable extent, that discourse includes their animals. Some of the most engaging moments in the novel involve Edgar and his parents training the dogs with a technique that seems somehow tedious and magical: "They spent long hours doing crazywalking, stays, releases, shared-gaze drills ... watching, listening, diverting a dog's exuberance, not suppressing it." Wroblewski's parents once raised dogs in this area of Wisconsin, and every page here expresses his love and knowledge of these animals. Yet the precise nature of the Sawtelles' breed remains tantalizingly vague. They "show rare, unnameable talents," and we catch glimpses of the dogs in various colors and sizes, but what matters is their demeanor, their character, "the way they look at you." Though never actually personified, they express the subtler qualities we associate with being human: judgment, even whimsy and, above all, a kind of intelligent presence and individuality that's unnerving to strangers. "Some, for example, seemed capable of inspiration," Wroblewski writes. "A dog with a keen sense of humor would find ways to make jokes with you, and could be a joy to work with. Others were serious and contemplative." Into this idyllic setting slithers Edgar's smooth-talking uncle, Claude. You don't need to catch the "Hamlet" references, and if you do, that won't sap the novel's suspense. Wroblewski plays with Shakespeare's troubled prince the same way Jane Smiley used "King Lear" for "A Thousand Acres," borrowing the frame but not the details. Claude has been in the Navy, in Korea, and though he can be charming, he's "ferociously solitary." Edgar's father gives Claude a job and a place to stay while he gets back on his feet, but the situation becomes uncomfortable almost immediately: "Arguments arose, puzzling and disconcerting," Wroblewski writes. "Though the details differed each time, 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." Eventually, those disagreements spark a murder that shatters everyone's life on the farm. Edgar's world comes "permanently unsprung," and he's forced to flee into the forests of Wisconsin with three young dogs no more ready to live on their own than he is. It's a long, dark journey for this little gang, a constant struggle against starvation and discovery set in a wilderness that Wroblewski describes in all its harrowing adventure and serendipity. But the real triumph is Edgar, this boy of rare sensitivity, virtue and resilience, carving out of air with his hands the rich language of his heart. Most of the story comes to us through a masterful, transparent voice: The author, the narrator, the pages — everything fades away as we're drawn into this engrossing tale. But there are also a few inventive variations. Once in a while, we see events from a dog's point of view, in a strangely humane but inhuman perspective. Another chapter is made up of Edgar's first memories as a baby and toddler, and there's a chilling section told from the murderer's perspective. As the thriller elements of the story rise and propel it along, Wroblewski laces in signs of mysticism, sometimes a little too portentous, but usually just right: The spooky old woman who runs a convenience store in town offers impromptu fortune-telling. In one of the novel's eeriest moments, Edgar is visited by "a water-shimmer" — a figure who appears only by displacing rain during a storm. And then there are those uncanny descriptions of the boy and his dogs: "the poised stillness of their bodies, and especially their gaze." These otherworldly touches move in and out of the novel, vanishing almost before you can focus on them. The final section gathers like a furious storm of hope and retribution that brings young Edgar to a destiny he doesn't deserve but never resists. It's a devastating finale, shocking though foretold, that transforms the story of this little family into something grand and unforgettable. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"I doubt we'll see a finer literary debut this year than The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. David Wroblewski's got storytelling talent to burn and a big, generous heart to go with it." Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls
"I flat-out loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.... Wonderful, mysterious, long and satisfying.... I don't re-read many books, because life is too short. I will be re-reading this one." Stephen King
"A stately, wonderfully written debut novel... [Wroblewski] takes an intense interest in his characters; takes pains to invest emotion and rough understanding in them; and sets them in motion with graceful language... a boon for dog lovers, and for fans of storytelling that eschews flash. Highly recommended." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"An excruciatingly captivating read... Ultimately liberating, though tragic and heart-wrenching, this book is unforgettable." Library Journal (starred review)
"Edgar Sawtelle is a boy without a voice, but his world, populated by the dogs his family breeds, is anything but silent. This is a remarkable story about the language of friendship — a language that transcends words." Dalia Sofer, bestselling author of The Septembers of Shiraz
"A good old-fashioned coming-of-age yarn. Grade: A" Entertainment Weekly
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.
David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes — the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain — create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.
This riveting saga of an American family captures the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy's epic journey into the wild.
About the Author
David Wroblewski grew up in rural Wisconsin, not far from the Chequamegon National Forest where The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is set. He earned his master's degree from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and now lives in Colorado with his partner, the writer Kimberly McClintock, and their dog, Lola. This is his first novel.
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