Synopses & Reviews
A riveting family saga, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy's epic journey into the wild.
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 companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle's 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. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He 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.
Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes - the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain - create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.
"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
“A stunning first novel…a ranging story that is part coming of age, part mystery and part tragedy on the order of Hamlet…Wroblewski executes with elan, building an addicting tale peopled by fully dimensional characters. He carries the reader, with authority and confidence, on a thought-provoking ride.” Denver Post
The Great American Novel is something like a unicornrare and wonderful, and maybe no more than just a notion. Yet every few years or so, we trip across some semblance of one.... [an] extraordinary debut. Elle
“This luminescent story has the kind of sprawling, wide-lens focus that readers think of when they talk about the so-called ‘great American novel.” Capital Times (Madison, WI)
“…a stunningly well-written novel…” Pittsburgh Tribune
“Whether you read for the beauty of language or for the intricacies of plot, you will easily fall in love with David Wroblewskis generous, almost transcendentally lovely debut novel...the scope of this book, its psychological insight and lyrical mastery, make it one of the best novels of the year....” O Magazine
Dont let the books massive size fool you: This is a good old-fashioned coming-of-age yarn.
“The most enchanting debut novel of the summer....a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana...One of the great pleasures of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is its free-roaming, unhurried progress, enlivened by the authors inability to write anything but guilelessly captivating prose. New York Times
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a wooly, unlikely, daring book, and wildly satisfying.” Mark Doty, New York Times bestselling author of Dog Years
“The authors spellbinding first novel…is nearly impossible to put down.” Kirkus Reviews, First Fiction Special
“In this beautifully written novel, David Wroblewski creates a remarkable hero who lives in a world populated as much by dogs as by humans, governed as much by the past as by the present. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a passionate, absorbing and deeply surprising debut.” Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
“…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...grand and unforgettable.” Washington Post Book World
“A literary thriller with commercial legs, this stunning debut is bound to be a bestseller.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"In its storytelling heft, its moral rectitude, the solemn magnificence of its writing and the splendor of its hymns to New York City, the new novel is a spiritual pendant to "Winter's Tale," and every bit as extraordinary...Even the most stubbornly resistant readers will soon be disarmed by the nobility of the novel's sentiments and seduced by the pure music of its prose...The harmonization of the dual climaxes results in passages so gorgeous and stirring that I was moved to read them out loud. That is fitting, because the writing throughout "In Sunlight and in Shadow" sounds as though it were scored to some great choral symphony. Harry himself says it best: "My view is that literature should move beyond opinion, where music already is, and old age, if we're lucky, may lead." -- Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal "Helprin has written another expansive novel, as if no one has yet alerted him that the novel is dead. Here it is, a poetic and likely enduring rendering of New York just after the Second World War, a love story that pines for love but even more fervently for an industrious and ascendant America that is no more and maybe never was.…In Sunlight and In Shadow matters. It is a novel, with all of the presumption and ambition and sense of transport that that word once carried when it was the boss…If his latest novel is a book out of time, perhaps it holds clues as to where the novel ought to go from here." --Mark Warren, Esquire "New York, New York, it's a wonderful town! And Mark Helprin's new near-epic novel makes it all the more marvelous. It's got great polarized motifs — war and peace, heroism and cowardice, crime and civility, pleasure and business, love and hate, bias and acceptance — which the gifted novelist weaves into a grand, old-fashioned romance, a New York love story...Helprin does several things extraordinarily well: He fights for and wins our close sympathy for his characters, even as he delivers a full-throated rendering of life at war and life at peace (with a little of each in the other). He also pays wonderful attention to the natural world, such as that New York spring that opens the story, the changing of seasons, dawn in France and winter in Germany during the war, such domestic matters as 30 minutes of kisses, and the rue and wonder of a great love affair. I was desperately disappointed, though, by the end of this grandly charming and deeply affecting novel — but only because it ended." -- Alan Cheuse, NPR "Helprins delightful new novel is a 705-page mash note to Manhattan in the years immediately following World War II. Like Winters Tale, the 1983 bestseller that made his name, its a paean to women and their beauty - and above all to romantic love and its abiding power…Helprin paints a dazzling portrait of the city during a particular moment in history and evokes the universal, dizzy delight of falling head over heels in love…Wise, saturated with sensory detail and beautifully written, Sunlight celebrates the unquenchable bliss of existence." -- Robin Micheli, People Magazine "Passionate, earnest, nostalgic, and romantic…Throughout the novel he splashes down paeans to virtue and beauty youd have to be heartless not to enjoy…" -- Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review "What Ive read so far is glorious and golden, truly like reentering another world where another sensibility prevails and even the sunlight and shadow have a different weight; the 100,000-copy first printing seems right." -- Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Pre-pub Alert "IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is every bit as terrific as you may have heard." -- Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch "A fine adult love story—not in the prurient sense, but in the sense of lovers elevated from smittenness to all the grownup problems that a relationship can bring." -- Kirkus, starred "In this prodigious, enfolding saga of exalted romance in corrupt, postwar New York, resplendent storyteller Helprin creates a supremely gifted and principled hero. Helprins suspenseful, many-stranded plot is unfailingly enthralling. The sumptuous settings are intoxicating." -- Booklist, starred Prose seems too mundane a term for Helprins extravagant way with words and emotions . . . . Post-World War II Manhattan isnt merely the backdrop . . . its a magical urban landscape of "whitening sunrises . . .ferries that glide across the harbor trailing smoke. . . bridges diamond-lit and distant." . . . His penchant for providing an epiphany on nearly every page could become wearying. But just when you think "In Sunlight and in Shadow" might float away into the ether, lofted by the sheer beauty of his sentences, he brings it down to earth with a shrewd comment on the speech patterns of Catherines ultra-privileged social class, or a vividly specific account of the production process at the West 26th Street loft that houses Harrys high-end leather goods business. . . . In Helprins rhapsodic rendering . . ."In Sunlight and in Shadow" is at heart a romance, not just the romance of two attractive young people but the romance of life itself. --Los Angeles Times Literary characters dont get much more perfect than Harry and Catherine . . . poster-sized World War II archetypes of a vanished America. . . . "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is a sensational and perfectly gripping novel: a love story, a tribute to the fighting spirit of World War II, a hymn to the majesty of New York. --The Washington Post This flamboyantly anti-realistic novel is more symphonic prose poem than narrative. It is a paean to love, idealized, and also a love letter to New York City in all its rhythms, human and natural, its moods, weathers, changing colors of sky and water. The writing is so highly lyrical and lovely that sometimes my aesthetic receptors clogged with a surfeit of beautiful language. . . .I succumbed to its idiosyncratic spell. . . .There is a tragic climax, perhaps inevitably, since it is difficult to imagine a perfect love enduring unchanged by time. But the novels main theme is the loving embrace of small visions and actions that become extraordinary if we have the spirit and energy to notice their textures. --Minneapolis Star-Tribune Helprin is gifted at writing about war - not just combat, but the vastly complex and contradictory world that surrounds combat - and the passages describing Harrys wartime experiences are . . . lyrical, thrilling and at times astonishing. . . . "In Sunlight and in Shadow," like all of Helprins novels, exists to remind us that. . . it is sometimes wiser and more fulfilling to cherish our deepest ideals than to mock them. --Chicago Tribune In the long sweep of his textured, absorbing look at life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century, Mark Helprin talks about many big issues, yet always gives them a human face. . . .Precise yet transcendent turns of phrase put readers right beside the couple as they deal with the circumstances . . . [of] a literary love story that rivals those celebrated in earlier classics. And Helprin has demonstrated once again the ability to make readers experience what Harry tells Catherine everyone must have: "the friction, the sparring with the world, that you need to feel alive." --St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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.
The extraordinary debut novel that became a modern classic
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 remarkable gift for companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. Edgar seems poised to carry on his family's traditions, but when catastrophe strikes, he finds his once-peaceful home engulfed in turmoil.
Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the Sawtelle farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who accompany him, until the day he is forced to choose between leaving forever or returning home to confront the mysteries he has left unsolved.
Filled with breathtaking scenes—the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain—The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a meditation on the limits of language and what lies beyond, a brilliantly inventive retelling of an ancient story, and an epic tale of devotion, betrayal, and courage in the American heartland.
An epic love story set in post-war New York by the bestselling author of Winter's Tale.
In the summer of 1946, New York City pulses with energy. Harry Copeland, a World War II veteran, has returned home to run the family business. Yet his life is upended by a single encounter with the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, as each falls for the other in an instant. They pursue one another in a romance played out in Broadway theaters, Long Island mansions, the offices of financiers, and the haunts of gangsters. Catherine’s choice of Harry over her longtime fiancé endangers Harry’s livelihood and threatens his life. In the end, Harry must summon the strength of his wartime experience to fight for Catherine, and risk everything.
“In its storytelling heft, its moral rectitude, the solemn magnificence of its writing and the splendor of its hymns to New York City, [In Sunlight and in Shadow] is a spiritual pendant to Winter’s Tale and every bit as extraordinary . . . Even the most stubbornly resistant readers will soon be disarmed by the nobility of the novel’s sentiments and seduced by the pure music of its prose.” — Wall Street Journal
Can love and honor conquer all?
Mark Helprins enchanting and sweeping novel springs from this deceptively simple question, and from the sight of a beautiful young woman, dressed in white, on the Staten Island Ferry, at the beginning of summer, 1946.
Postwar New York glows with energy. Harry Copeland, an elite paratrooper who fought behind enemy lines in Europe, has returned home to run the family business. Yet his life is upended by a single encounter with the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, as they each fall for the other in an instant.
Harry and Catherine pursue one another in a romance played out in Broadway theaters, Long Island mansions, the offices of financiers, and the haunts of gangsters. Catherines choice of Harry over her longtime fiancé endangers Harrys livelihood and eventually threatens his life. In the end, it is Harrys extraordinary wartime experience that gives him the character and means to fight for Catherine, and risk everything.
Not since Winters Tale has Mark Helprin written such a magically inspiring saga. Entrancing in its lyricism, In Sunlight and in Shadow so powerfully draws you into New York at the dawn of the modern age that, as in a vivid dream, you will not want to leave.
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.
Table of Contents
Boat to St. George: May, 1946 1
Overlooking the Sea 12
Her Hands and the Way She Held Them 24
The Moon Rising over the East River 30
Catherines Song 45
In Production 55
And There She Was 68
What Youre Trained to Do 92
Distant Lights and Summer Wind 119
Changing Light 145
Billy and Evelyn 152
Conversation by the Sea 174
Gray and Green 188
The Abacus 196
The Glare of July 201
The Whole World 213
The Gift of a Clear Day 232
The Beach Road 241
Young Townsend Coombs 248
The Settee 261
The Economics of Hot Water 272
The Wake of the Crispin 284
Speechless and Adrift 310
The Evening Transcript 316
Lost Souls 333
James George Vanderlyn 353
Baucis and Philemon 360
Crossing the River 375
The Highlands 405
Glorious Summer 436
Counsel and Arms 536
Office in Madison Square 574
The Train from Milwaukee 585
Red Steel 597
A Passion of Kindness 603
The Letter 623
In the Arcade 652
Catherine Rising 670
The Horse and His Rider He Hath
Thrown into the Sea 694
In the Arms of an Angel 712
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
A warning: discussion questions can be and probably must be spoilers. Read on at your own risk!
1. How would Edgar's story have been different if he had been born with a voice? How would Edgar himself have been different? Since Edgar can communicate perfectly well in sign most of the time, why should having a voice make any difference at all?
2. At one point in this story, Trudy tells Edgar that what makes the Sawtelle dogs valuable is something that cannot be put into words, at least by her. By the end of the story, Edgar feels he understands what she meant, though he is equally at a loss to name this quality. What do you think Trudy meant?
3. How does Almondine's way of seeing the world differ from the human characters in this story? Does Essay's perception (which we can only infer) differ from Almondine's? Assuming that both dogs are examples of what John Sawtelle dubbed canis posterus, "the next dogs", what specifically can they do that other dogs cannot?
4. In what ways have dog training techniques changed in the last few decades? Do Edgar's own methods change over the course of the story? If so, why? Do different methods of dog training represent a trade-off of some kind, or are certain methods simply better? Would it be more or less difficult to train a breed of dogs that had been selected for many generations for their intellect?
5. Haunting is a prominent motif in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. How many ghosts, both literal and figurative, are in this story? In what ways are the ghosts alike? Who is haunted, and by whom?
6. One of the abiding mysteries in Edgar's life concerns how his parents met. In fact, Edgar is an inveterate snoop about it. Yet when Trudy finally offers to tell him, he decides he'd rather not know. What does that reveal about Edgar's character or his state of mind? Do you think he might have made a different decision earlier in the story?
7. At first glance, Henry Lamb seems an unlikely caretaker for a pair of Sawtelle dogs, yet Edgar feels that Tinder and Baboo will be safe with him. What is it about Henry that makes him fit? Would it have been better if Edgar had placed the dogs with someone more experienced? Why doesn't Edgar simply insist that all the dogs return home with him?
8. Claude is a mysterious presence in this story. What does he want and when did he start wanting it? What is his modus operandi? Would his methods work in the real world, or is such behavior merely a convenient trope of fiction? Two of the final chapters are told from Claude's point of view. Do they help explain his character or motivation?
9. In one of Edgar's favorite passages from The Jungle Book, Bagheera tells Mowgli that he was once a caged animal, until "one night I felt that I was Bagheera—the Panther—and no man's plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away." There is a dialectic in Edgar's story that is similarly concerned with the ideas of wildness and domestication. How does this manifest itself? What is the "wildest" element in the story? What is the most "domestic"?
10. Mark Doty has called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle "an American Hamlet." Certainly, there are moments that evoke that older drama, but many other significant story elements do not. Edgar's encounter with Ida Paine is one example out of many. Are other Shakespearean plays evoked in this story? Consider Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest. In what sense is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle like all Elizabethan stage drama? Is it important to know (or not know) that the story is, at some level, a retelling of an older tale? Do you think Elizabethan audiences were aware that Hamlet was itself a retelling of an older story?
11. Until it surfaces later in the story, some readers forget entirely about the poison that makes its appearance in the Prologue; others never lose track of it. Which kind of reader were you? What is the nature of the poison? When the man and the old herbalist argue in the Prologue, who did you think was right?
12. In the final moments of the story, Essay must make a choice. What do you think she decides, and why? Do you think all the dogs will abide by her decision?