American readers have long been enchanted by books about dogs and other domestic animals; witness the recent popularity of a simple story about a badly behaved golden retriever named Marley, whose author must be happily stunned by the success of his creation. I enjoyed reading the slim volume when it was first published, and I even gave it as a gift to some of my dog-loving friends.
But this review is not about Marley or for that matter Lassie or even Rin Tin Tin. It is a serious first novel by a serious novelist who demands to be taken seriously. In his widely acclaimed book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski has created a landscape of beauty and simplicity and peopled it with memorable characters who share much the same qualities as their surroundings.
Edgar, a 14-year-old boy born with normal hearing but without the ability to utter a sound, has found a way to communicate with those around him by means of a sign language of his own design. His family is part of a long tradition of breeders and trainers of a remarkable line of dogs famous for their qualities of obedience, loyalty, faithfulness, intelligence, and companionship. Potential owners are scrutinized with the same care as is expended on adoptive parents, and they are willing to travel great distances and pay highly for the privilege of bringing a Sawtelle dog into the family.
Despite his handicap, Edgar lives an idyllic childhood at the farm in Northern Wisconsin where hard work is shared and love makes the work bearable. The boy goes to school, and his mother’s dream for his future includes a college education. A major portion of his education is acquired on site as he assists with the training of the dogs placed in his care. One of his important assignments is to name the dogs and to this task he puts forward a great deal of effort, poring through the encyclopedias for fitting names.
Less than a third of the way through the book, the story goes from the idyllic, to the heroic and finally, to the tragic when Edgar finds his beloved father, Gar, dying on the floor of the barn. That changes life forever for Edgar and for his mother, Trudy. The latter goes to pieces and begins to come back to life only with the arrival of Claude, Gar’s estranged ( and strange) brother. By the time Claude has begun to settle into life on the farm as well as a place in Trudy’s bed, Edgar begins to receive visits from his ghostly father who suggests that his earthly demise was neither natural nor accidental. If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps you have seen it before under the title of a certain Danish prince. Edgar knows that if he tells anyone of his suspicions, he will not be believed without having proof positive. Like that prince, the boy is haunted and torn between his wish to avenge his father’s death and to see his mother comforted.
When a series of events culminates in an even greater tragedy, Edgar is forced to flee the farm and make his own way across the rural wilderness of Wisconsin. Along the way, he and the three dogs who accompany him experience enough hair-raising adventures and heart-warming encounters to keep the reader on edge through many chapters. More than once I wanted the book to end just because I was sure that Edgar and his dogs were in the right place and would do well to stay put.
However, Wroblewski was not yet finished with his tale and I eagerly anticipated the wrap-up. I stayed with him to the final word and realized the truth of the adage “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” True to its Shakespearean heritage, the end comes only when it is time for the end to come, and by then the reader is exhausted after an emotional experience. It was a tough journey, but I lived to tell about it. I also learned more about dogs than I ever expected to know from an author who has a good deal of knowledge and surely did a lot of research. I heartily recommend this book to any reader willing to travel through uncharted country and open to meeting uncommon characters along the way.