The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski


Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

“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 accidents- the rest you let float by.”

It seems like a simple enough concept: a mute boy and his dogs. But the complexity of this story becomes evident from the first chapter and stays until the end. When I read the last page of this book, I slammed it shut and hurled it across the room. I hated David Wroblewski, I hated his characters and I needed time to process. I woke up the next morning still upset, when I realized how rare it is to read a book that made me feel so emotionally vulnerable. Yes, it was an Oprah’s Book Club choice, which might lead one to believe that the novel is mushy and overly sentimental. But if the queen of daytime television intentionally tried to pick a book that would captivate and read easily without insulting the intelligence of the reader, she hit the mark with this choice.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle takes place in a rural northern Wisconsin town. The Sawtelle name is synonymous with a unique breed of dog, bred and trained by Gar and Trudy Sawtelle. After suffering a series of miscarriages, Trudy finally bears a son. Right from birth, Edgar shares a trait with dogs that cements his dedication to them: he can hear, but he cannot talk. But Edgar’s inability to verbalize his thoughts doesn’t stop him from knowing exactly what he wants to convey. He quickly develops his own unique language- a cross between American Sign Language and his family’s invented signs. As he grows older, his language extends to the dogs and he builds a connection with them so personal and compelling that itself is testament to Wroblewski’s talent. He turns a seemingly monotonous task like dog training into a mesmerizing display of loyalty and love.

What sets Edgar apart is not so much his disability, but the subtle intuition he has regarding his dogs and people in his life. Although he never says a word, his thoughts are so well-crafted that the depth of the character is useless to deny and impossible to measure. Wroblewski cleverly writes Edgar’s thoughts as dialogue, minus quotation marks.

Into this quiet Midwestern life enters the charming but shifty Uncle Claude. Edgar’s father agrees to give Claude work until he can get back on his feet, and their childhood differences seep back into the farm as they argue and taunt each other. When Edgar finds his father unconscious, he uselessly dials 911 and his muteness becomes an accomplice in Gar’s death. Grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, Edgar retreats from the familiarity of his mother, as she grows closer to Claude. In a series of events that draw on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Edgar is forced to abandon his home and flee into hiding with three of a young litter of pups, who seem as unprepared and determined as he does. Throughout the journey, Edgar morphs from a reflective teenager into a stubborn and passionate young adult, but always retains the intricacies of his convictions that make him so hard to forget.

The narration of this novel is as engrossing as its prose. It’s mostly told from Edgar’s perspective, but easily changes from time to time, and even manages to relate the dogs’ point of view in a way that borders (but doesn’t cross) the line between realistic and anthropomorphic: “Inside her were countless mornings watching his eyes flutter open as he woke. Above all, she recalled the language the two of them had invented, a language in which everything important could be said. She did not know how to ask the traveler what she needed to ask, not what form its reply might take. But it was upon her now, angry and rushed, and it wouldn’t be long before she knew the answer. A bloom of dust like a thundercloud chased it down the hill. She stood broadside in the gravel and turned her head and asked her question. Asked if it had see her boy. Her essence. Her soul. But if the traveler understood, it showed no sign.”

Wroblewski’s first novel is by no means a literary masterpiece, but it makes for good reading. Admittedly, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle had elements to it that immediately appealed to me. Being from Wisconsin and a former dog trainer, Edgar’s story hooked me before I cracked the spine. But even without that connection, it’s still a mesmerizing book that engages the reader and draws them into the Sawtelle family’s devastating tale before they know it.

by Lisa Bahr
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