13 July 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

I started this book last Wednesday night, and ever since then, I’ve been telling everyone I can think of – even casual acquaintances – to read it immediately. I finished it yesterday, and already I’m seriously thinking about starting over. I don’t know how to describe it, really, because it doesn’t fit neatly into one specific genre. It’s kind of a “boy and his dog” coming-of-age story, but also part adventure, part mystery, part ghost story.

The title character, Edgar, is a young boy whose family lives on a farm in Wisconsin during the mid-1950s. They breed Sawtelle Dogs, so named because they were rather much invented by Edgar’s grandfather to be perfect companion dogs. Instead of breeding for purity of bloodline, the Sawtelles breed for intelligence, and for some “je ne sais quoi” quality that will make the dogs choice makers, able to understand and respond to training and commands, but also develop a form of free will. Sort of. It’s hard to describe, really. The important part is that the dogs are a huge part of this book. The narrator is third-person omniscient, and usually he (she?) describes the action from Edgar’s point of view. But there are a few chapters that speak from a dog’s perspective, and they are some of the best parts of the book.

Interestingly, just like the dogs he cares for, Edgar is mute; he can hear, but he can’t speak. Very clever, also, then, that Edgar's surname is Sawtelle. Saw. Tell. Get it? ;-)

The plot has been billed as “Hamlet”…with dogs. I’m not sure about that. “Hamlet” was never my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (“Othello” is, in case you’re wondering). Actually, I never liked “Hamlet” much at all, so I tried to pay as little attention to it as possible while still making an A in my Shakespeare class in college. Still, though, perhaps you can rest assured, knowing that there is no moment where Edgar cradles a skull…human or canine.

I will not do you the disservice of telling you the tragic plot turn that happens about a third of the way through the book. Unfortunately, the writers of the book flap are not as kind as I, so if you don’t want to have your reading ruined, throw the flap into the garbage as soon as you buy it. I was disgusted at having read it, actually, because I’m convinced that I would have somehow enjoyed the book even more if I hadn’t known what was coming.

Honestly, I usually hate books that wander too heavily into detail or description. I had to stop reading “Les Miserables” for a while, and then skip 100 pages or so, because I was so tired of hearing about what Victor Hugo thought about the guillotine or the Battle of Waterloo. But, Wroblewski’s best writing shows itself in his descriptions of the dogs’ training, or the family farm, or the town itself and the people who inhabit it. He paints a childhood that is undoubtedly ideal and idyllic (at least in the beginning…not so much at the end), but I can’t even tell you how much I loved reading about it.

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