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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – Deckle Edge, September 8, 2009
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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.
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."--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. Why leave Trudy alive and destroyed at the end without the redemption of an afterlife with the ones she loved? What evil did she do to deserve a worse end than Claude? Remember, she didn't even ask Claude back. Edgar did when he realized that his mother would die if she didn't get help with the kennel.
If you look at the story as a dog story, then the ending is wrong as well. John Sawtelle picked dogs that had a special connection to their humans. Gar and Trudy carried this on in their dog breeding. That is the importance of the Haichiko story, in addition, of course, to its relevance as a ghost story in the 'Hamlet' parallel. Essay chose Edgar. So to have her choose to lead the other dogs off instead of coming into the barn to defend and protect Edgar, as Almondine did with the rabid animal, has her make an incomprehensible (and enormously wrong) choice. If Wroblewski wanted to show us that you can't breed loyalty, then why did the rest of the story show us that you can. Trudy has spent the entire book trying to get Edgar to understand what makes the Sawtelle dogs special and as soon as he gets it, the next step in the evolution of Sawtelle dogs, Essay, shows him that Trudy was wrong. To have Edgar go to the trouble of saving the kennel papers just to show us how worthless they are--the dogs have gone wild, Edgar is dead and Trudy catatonic--is a pretty nihilistic and wrong-headed conclusion, given the loyalty and love that have filled the rest of the story.
Are we supposed to believe that Edgar would allow Claude to get so close given his understanding of Claude's intentions? Are we supposed to believe that Trudy whose love for her son kept her from irrecoverable depression would not have found some way to get into the barn, even if she had to maim Glen further to break free?
'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' frustrates so many of us posting on this site because the ending feels so wrong. Could Wroblewski have just gotten tired of telling his story and wanted to be done or perhaps his editor was up against a time crunch and needed to get the book to bookstore shelves quickly? Whatever happened, it's a shame because the characters deserved a proper ending and so did we, the readers.
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. DON'T buy if you think you're getting a "dog story" or a "kid story".
Christmas Day, 2008
Thank you to all who took the time to read my review and comment so thoughtfully. I guess a book that inspires this much discussion must have something going for it.
In response to the comment that I got the time wrong; you are all correct. I think that the extremely rural setting made it feel more old-fashioned than the 70's, so that was why I mentally settled on the 50's as I read it. I grew up in the 70's in rural Pennsylvania, and this did not feel at all the same. But, I'll be more careful with my specifics if I post any more reviews.
My comments about other reviews being inaccurate related to a series of five-star "customer" reviews posted in the first month or so after Stephen King gave his gushing endorsement. No fewer than three of these "customer" reviews contained exactly the same substantial errors about Forte and characters in the book. (Even the wording of the reviews was only subtly different. I'm having a hard time finding the reviews now because there are so many.) At the time, I was deeply suspicious that the publishing house was manipulating the review system to push sales of this book. The whole Oprah/Stephen King/5-star review combo is incredibly powerful in driving sales, and I'm not sure it's completely objective.
And I'm a "she", not a "he." :) Keep reading and posting!
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.