The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Unlike many of the books I pick up to read, I had not read anything about this one before I borrowed it from the library. It was an impulse pick. I need to do that more often.
Edgar is a young boy who is born to Trudy and Gar who live on a farm in rural Wisconsin. They are dog breeders and their dogs are named after them. Edgar is unable to speak but can hear and learns to sign. He works on the farm and loves the work. He trains the dogs with his mother and father and as he grows up is learning more about what the Sawtelle dogs really meant to his family and will mean to him. Edgar is also brought up by the faithful Almondine, a dog who is wise and kind to the young Edgar and steers him from harm.
Ostensibly the story is the Hamlet story retold. That, however, does it an injustice. It is beautifully written, nuanced and measured in its language. The voice of the novel got me as soon as I began reading and I found it drew me along for the whole length of the story. I was glad that I came to this book without knowing anything about it because the way that it developed the plot was so careful that I could draw my own conclusions; it was not until I was some way in that I realised the Hamlet plot was developing. It also revealed Edgar’s inability to speak carefully without being too obvious. I appreciated that I was allowed to ‘discover’ the story in this way.
When Edgar’s idyllic existence is brought to a crashing halt with the death of his beloved father the raw emotion is overpowering. It has none of the existential angst that Hamlet can have, nor does Edgar spend time navel gazing, he simply deals with it and grieves. It is not until his uncle Claude really draws in that we see what is about to happen. Edgar’s time in the wilderness on the run is told with a level of detail that is mesmerising. We believe that he could survive in the way that he does and the details about the wildlife around him add to the authenticity without bogging down the tale. When Edgar does make mistakes he deals with them with a stoicism that makes the reader admire him again. He takes an enforced rest and we can then see him through the eyes of a stranger who comes to admire him and who is left richer for having helped him. Henry is a lonely and morose man who tells Edgar that he is not trustworthy but Edgar proves to him that he is and allows him to learn that he is better than he believed.
The book really comes alive in the relationship between Edgar and his dogs, three of whom go with him into the wild. The dogs are finely written and their reliance on and love for Edgar is touching. At the very end it is his love for the Sawtelle dogs that proves to be his undoing. The ending will have you wrung out, even though you know how it has to end given the plot development.
The fact that this is David Wroblewski’s first book is extraordinary. It is assured and poetic and is a book that shows its love of language throughout.
I am not usually described as a dog lover, but this book certainly gave me a better appreciation of them. For more on this see David Wroblewski’s blog.


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