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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel Hardcover – June 10, 2008

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2008: It's gutsy for a debut novelist to offer a modern take on Hamlet set in rural Wisconsin--particularly one in which the young hero, born mute, communicates with people, dogs, and the occasional ghost through his own mix of sign and body language. But David Wroblewski's extraordinary way with language in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle immerses readers in a living, breathing world that is both fantastic and utterly believable. In selecting for temperament and a special intelligence, Edgar's grandfather started a line of unusual dogs--the Sawtelles--and his sons carried on his work. But among human families, undesirable traits aren't so easily predicted, and clashes can erupt with tragic force. Edgar's tale takes you to the extremes of what humans must endure, and when you're finally released, you will come back to yourself feeling wiser, and flush with gratitude. And you will have remembered what magnificent alchemy a finely wrought novel can work. --Mari Malcolm

Book Description

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.

Double Life, with Dogs: An Amazon Exclusive Essay by David Wroblewski

We write the stories we wish we could read. There's no other reason to do it, to spend years pacing around your basement, mumbling, pecking at a keyboard, turning your back on a world that offers such a feast of delicious fruits. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle came about because some time ago I wished I could read a novel about a boy and his dog, one that integrated our contemporary knowledge of canine behavior, cognition, and origins with my experience of living with dogs; if possible, something flavored with the uncynical Midwestern sense of heart and purpose so familiar from my childhood (and something which, in truth, I've spent much my adult life being slightly ashamed of, as if either heart or purpose were embarrassing attributes for a grown-up to display). I'd recently come to know a good dog, maybe the best dog I'd ever met, and the subject of people and dogs and ethics and character suddenly seemed urgent. But when I went looking for such a story, I had to go back almost a hundred years, back to Jack London's Call of the Wild. That was a surprise. A little while after that, an idea for a story came to me--not the whole thing, but enough to start.

Continue Reading Double Life, With Dogs

Praise from Stephen King

"I flat-out loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and spent twelve happy evenings immersed in the world David Wroblewski has created. As I neared the end, I kept finding excuses to put the book aside for a little, not because I didn't like it, but because I liked it too much; I didn't want it to end. Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance. Yet in the end, this isn't a novel about dogs or heartland America--although it is a deeply American work of literature. It's a novel about the human heart, and the mysteries that live there, understood but impossible to articulate. Yet in the person of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute boy who takes three of his dogs on a brave and dangerous odyssey, Wroblewski does articulate them, and splendidly. I closed the book with that regret readers feel only after experiencing the best stories: It's over, you think, and I won't read another one this good for a long, long time.

In truth, there's never been a book quite like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I thought of Hamlet when I was reading it, and Watership Down, and The Night of the Hunter, and The Life of Pi--but halfway through, I put all comparisons aside and let it just be itself.

I'm pretty sure this book is going to be a bestseller, but unlike some, it deserves to be. It's also going to be the subject of a great many reading groups, and when the members take up Edgar, I think they will be apt to stick to the book and forget the neighborhood gossip.

Wonderful, mysterious, long and satisfying: readers who pick up this novel are going to enter a richer world. I envy them the trip. I don't re-read many books, because life is too short. I will be re-reading this one."

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A literary thriller with commercial legs, this stunning debut is bound to be a bestseller. In the backwoods of Wisconsin, the Sawtelle family—Gar, Trudy and their young son, Edgar—carry on the family business of breeding and training dogs. Edgar, born mute, has developed a special relationship and a unique means of communicating with Almondine, one of the Sawtelle dogs, a fictional breed distinguished by personality, temperament and the dogs' ability to intuit commands and to make decisions. Raising them is an arduous life, but a satisfying one for the family until Gar's brother, Claude, a mystifying mixture of charm and menace, arrives. When Gar unexpectedly dies, mute Edgar cannot summon help via the telephone. His guilt and grief give way to the realization that his father was murdered; here, the resemblance to Hamlet resonates. After another gut-wrenching tragedy, Edgar goes on the run, accompanied by three loyal dogs. His quest for safety and succor provides a classic coming-of-age story with an ironic twist. Sustained by a momentum that has the crushing inevitability of fate, the propulsive narrative will have readers sucked in all the way through the breathtaking final scenes. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 1st edition (June 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061374229
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061374227
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,208 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #634,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

916 of 1,009 people found the following review helpful By Little Angie on August 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Sometimes a book just has the wrong ending, not a sad or loose end trailing kind of ending--both of those endings are just fine if they are the right ending for the story, but the wrong ending. 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' is a book with the wrong ending, making it a frustrating read.
Unanswered threads such as how Edgar's parents met or why Gar and Claude hated each other or exactly how Almondine died don't really affect the quality of the story; the author has given us enough clues to let us fill in those blanks on our own. Edgar's parents had created a lovely game of giving Edgar misinformation about their courtship. The truth, although good, as his mother said, would only be a letdown. Any tale of sibling rivalry goes back to Cain and Abel. We can fill in how Claude was jealous of Gar and how Gar resented Claude getting away with things. Almondine died because she was old and old dogs die and she died because she was Ophelia and Ophelia dies. It doesn't matter whether the car hit her (which I don't think happened) or whether she just died on the side of the road waiting for Edgar to return. Her fate was to die while Edgar was away.
But a wrong ending is a completely different matter. It can make us resent the time and emotion we have invested in a story. And the ending is wrong for this book whether you see it as a retelling of 'Hamlet' or as a dog story. 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' follows the plot in 'Hamlet' so closely that it is wrong that Trudy/Gertrude doesn't get the poison intended for Edgar and wrong that Claude/Claudius getting trapped in the burning barn doesn't feel more satisfying and dramatic. To leave Trudy out of the ghostly group hug at the end is, as several people have commented, just cruel.
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1,066 of 1,187 people found the following review helpful By AlixAJ on July 21, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition
I'm having a really hard time believing that all these 5-star reviews are legitimate. Some of them don't even seem to be by someone who READ this book as they are full of factual errors. I cannot recommend this book, but will try to provide some insight into what you'll REALLY be getting if you buy it.

What's good: Author is a gifted wordcrafter, with an ability to pick poetic and unusual phrases to capture an image or feeling. The dog interactions in the wild are inspired and inspiring. The evoking of a time and place (rural Wisconsin in the 50's) is powerful.

What's not: Pacing is virtually unchanged throughout. There are dozens of plotlines that occupy pages and go nowhere and are never resolved or tied in (dog breeding debate, Forte, stray puppy, town fortune teller, role of Dr. Papideau, Henry and the dogs - for just a few). It's sort of like a long poem or a set of song lyrics that makes you sit back and appreciate it's beauty, but scratch your head at the point. Presented as a tragedy, but just disappointing, not cathartic. Evil personified (Claude) is just sort of grey and strange - no convincing explanation for source of his evilness or his motivation for ruining everything. No clear personal flaws presented in Gar, Trudy or Edgar to make them deserving of their fate - in fact quite the contrary. About 90% of the way through, all these threads have been spun and you're waiting for the author to work his magic of pulling them all together into a beautiful and coherent ending, and instead he just quits and literally burns it all down. It's not that I insist on a happy ending, but I insist on one that makes me feel there was a point to my journey.

In short, if you love Russian novels, go ahead.
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455 of 515 people found the following review helpful By Walter Scott on November 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you enjoy spending hours immersed in promising prose that concludes with one of the most dreadful endings in the history of American literature, then by all means buy this book. You will become invested in the characters, mesmerized by the setting, infatuated with the dogs, and absolutely sickened and enraged by the cop-out of an ending. It is as though the author expended all his artistry and had nothing but venom for the story at the end.
I understand tragedy, and I do not require or expect happy endings, but of all the ways this story could have ended, the worst of all possible worlds was chosen. The good guys lose, the bad guys lose, the marginal characters lose, the dogs lose, and ultimately the reader is the biggest loser of them all. The reader is left to resent the time spent getting to the conclusion. A refund of the cost of the book would not repay time wasted reading it.
At times, Wroblewski writes so well that he approaches the level of a Hemmingway or a Steinbeck; but he finishes so wretchedly that he falls far short of an amateur King. The reader is left to wonder why the author hated this story so much that he torched it too at the end.
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161 of 185 people found the following review helpful By L. Francis on October 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I ordered this book through the Contra Costa County library service and picked it up at a local branch about two weeks ago. I finished it this morning; rarely, if ever, has a book left me with more of a feeling of having completely wasted my time. I cannot imagine what Oprah was thinking by, basically, recommending this book to Millions of people.

I actually enjoyed the first section of the book, that's roughly the first 125 pages or so.

But after that the book wildly veered off course into the most laughably implausible plot developments. To avoid spoilers, I'll refrain from spelling them out here.

However, since the book flap already mentions that Edgar winds up surviving on his own in the wilderness, I'll comment on that.

The author does not come up with a believable scenario to get Edgar out there into the wild. You wind up with the feeling that that is simply the direction in which the author was determined to go no matter how badly he had to twist his plot out of shape.

And then the ending. As other commentators here have mentioned - it is simply awful.

I didn't just hate it. It goes down in history as finalist for "one of the worst endings of all time."

By the end of the book I was left with a feeling that after 600 pages, absolutely nothing had happened except that everybody suffers. No character development; no insights on life of any kind; nothing that was in any way uplifting, redemptive or even interesting.

It was kind of like reading the book of Job - only without the appearance of God at the end.

All one is left with is one tragedy, after another, and another, and another and another.....

It almost turns into a slaughter fest -

Like the title says - Do not waste your time!
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