"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 17, 2008)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle starts out with one of the most memorable prologues to have come along in a while. The menace that tinges these first few pages as a young American soldier is introduced to a deadly poison in South Korea, sets the stage for a wonderfully told story of childhood, love, and the more sinister elements of murder and revenge.
The Sawtelle family members have occupied land in rural Wisconsin—deep in the Chequamegon National Forest—for generations. Trudy and her husband Gar work at breeding dogs—a breed so rare and hard to define that they gradually just become known as Sawtelle dogs. Gar has spent years breeding these dogs not merely on the basis of physical attributes but by certain emotional characteristics. You don't just look at a Sawtelle dog—it looks at you—is the commonly believed truth about these dogs. Into the family is born Edgar Sawtelle, a child born after previous pregnancy mishap. Gar and Trudy soon realize that Edgar is mute but after advice from an acquaintance Trudy never stops speaking to her child. Edgar in turn, learns to sign amazingly well and he shows a special talent at being able to bond with and train the Sawtelle dogs. Over time Edgar's chores include helping out with the dogs in the barn and picking out special names for the dogs—a job he does really well through use of a trusted dictionary.
Into this idyllic world steps uncle Claude—a young man who is just about as different from his brother Gar as he could possibly be. It is here that the air of menace seeps through again and the suggestion of something ominous brewing is built upon brilliantly by the author David Wroblewski. Wroblewski, who has worked as a computer programmer lends his creative talents to his debut project masterfully. Having been brought up in the Chequamegon National Forest himself, Wroblewski brings the woods alive in these pages. As Claude and Gar start clashing increasingly frequently, the effects of their discord on Edgar is also done beautifully. Eventually tragedy strikes and having practically no other options, Edgar runs into the woods with a few of the dogs.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle borrows from Shakespeare's classic Hamlet—the Elizabethan elements of poison and ghosts feature quite prominently in the novel. As Edgar is increasingly convinced that there have been sinister goings on at his family home, he needs to return to exact revenge. What follows is a bitter and dramatic confrontation at the end—one that Wroblewski pens in vivid, cinematic detail.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an impressive debut. At over 500 pages it holds the reader's attention for the most part. There are some elements especially when Edgar is trudging through the woods with his dogs that the descriptions get to be a little too detailed and repetitive. Fortunately Wroblewski doesn't wait too long before moving the action into high gear again. The essential darker elements of the story are strung together with supernatural elements and Wroblewski's writing is powerful enough to almost swallow it whole. Yet there are times when one wonders if the Hamlet crutch—the appearance of a ghost—wasn't an easy way out of tying the mystery in more practical and believable ways.
On the whole though The Story of Edgar Sawtelle earns high marks as a suspenseful and extremely compelling novel. It comes as no surprise that when Edgar runs into help in the deep woods he gives his name as Nathoo the counterpart of Mowgli in Jungle Book. In its ability to bestow anthropomorphic qualities on animals, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is fashioned very much after Rudyard Kipling's famous set of stories and Wroblewski pays a huge nod to the author through the book. At the end of it all, the Sawtelle dogs steal the show. As Wroblewski himself recently explained they all have that inexplicable character: “one extra increment of communication, insight, ability or all those things.” It makes their interaction with a mute boy that much more compelling and the basis for a well-written, absorbing summer read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1,742 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (June 2008)
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- Official website for David Wroblewski
- New West interview with David Wroblewski
- NY Mag interview with David Wroblewski
- Reading Group Guide for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
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About the Author:
David Wroblewski grew up in rural central 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. Over the years he has lived in La Crosse, Minneapolis, and Austin, Texas. Currently, he makes his home near Boulder, Colorado with the writer Kimberly McClintock.