Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Wroblewski)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle 
David Wroblewski, 2008
HarperCollins
566 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061374234

Summary  
For Shakespeare buffs, this is a retelling of Hamlet.

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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1960
Where—Pittsville, Wisconsin, USA
Education—M.F.A., Warren Wilson College
Currently—lives in Colorado


David Wroblewski grew up in rural 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 and now lives in Colorado with his partner, the writer Kimberly McClintock, and their dog, Lola. This is his first novel. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews 
One of the great pleasures of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is its free-roaming, unhurried progress, enlivened by the author’s inability to write anything but guilelessly captivating prose.... One of Mr. Wroblewski’s most impressive accomplishments here is to exert a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.  Whether it is capturing every nuance of puppy behavior, following Edgar through the dictionary as he picks names for his first litter, or delivering long sections of narrative that Mr. Wroblewski himself has named intriguingly (“Three Griefs,” “What Hands Do”), this rich and hefty book never flags.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Wroblewski seems aware of the two outsize risks he has undertaken — not merely deciding to retell “Hamlet,” but combining it with a near categorically twee subject: slobbering, tail-wagging dogs. He handles his task with impressive subtlety, even when allowing the narrative a dog’s-eye view. But while sections of this book achieve a piercing elegance, the novel too often slides into the torpid mode of field guides and breeding manuals, with Wroblewski’s penchant for detail getting in the way of a full exploration of his characters’ emotional cores. This concern with the exterior frequently eclipses his attention to the interior, a self-indulgence that the first-time author may well outgrow. Even Shakespeare had to first produce “Titus Andronicus.”.
Mike Peed - New York Times Book Review


Sit. Stay. Read. The dog days of summer are nigh, and here is a big-hearted novel you can fall into, get lost in and finally emerge from reluctantly, a little surprised that the real world went on spinning while you were absorbed. You haven't heard of the author. David Wroblewski is a 48-year-old software developer in Colorado, and this is his first novel. It's being released with the kind of hoopla once reserved for the publishing world's most established authors. No wonder: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an enormous but effortless read, trimmed down to the elements of a captivating story about a mute boy and his dogs. That sets off alarm bells, I know: Handicapped kids and pets can make a toxic mix of sentimentality. But Wroblewski writes with such grace and energy that Edgar Sawtelle never succumbs to that danger. Inspired improbably by the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this Midwestern tale manages to be both tender and suspenseful.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


The most enchanting debut novel of the summer....a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana...One of the great pleasures of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is its free-roaming, unhurried progress, enlivened by the author’s inability to write anything but guilelessly captivating prose.
Pittsburgh Tribune


A literary thriller with commercial legs, this stunning debut is bound to be a bestseller. In the backwoods of Wisconsin, the Sawtelle family—Gar, Trudy and their young son, Edgar—carry on the family business of breeding and training dogs. Edgar, born mute, has developed a special relationship and a unique means of communicating with Almondine, one of the Sawtelle dogs, a fictional breed distinguished by personality, temperament and the dogs' ability to intuit commands and to make decisions. Raising them is an arduous life, but a satisfying one for the family until Gar's brother, Claude, a mystifying mixture of charm and menace, arrives. When Gar unexpectedly dies, mute Edgar cannot summon help via the telephone. His guilt and grief give way to the realization that his father was murdered; here, the resemblance to Hamlet resonates. After another gut-wrenching tragedy, Edgar goes on the run, accompanied by three loyal dogs. His quest for safety and succor provides a classic coming-of-age story with an ironic twist. Sustained by a momentum that has the crushing inevitability of fate, the propulsive narrative will have readers sucked in all the way through the breathtaking final scenes.
Publishers Weekly


Set in Wisconsin, this deeply nuanced epic tells the story of a boy, his dog, and much more. Father, son, and even dog take turns narrating before the story is told primarily by the inexplicably mute Edgar Sawtelle. Part mystery, part Hamlet, the story opens with a sinister and seemingly unrelated scene that begins to make sense as the narrative progresses. The rich depiction of Edgar's family, who are breeders of unique dogs, creates a warm glow that contrasts sharply with the cold evil that their family contains. This tension, along with a little salting of the paranormal, makes this an excruciatingly captivating read. Readers examine the concept of choice, the choice of the dogs in their relationship with people, and the choice of people in their acquiescence to or rejection of their perceived destiny. Ultimately liberating, though tragic and heart-wrenching, this book is unforgettable; overwhelmingly recommended for all libraries.
Henry Blankhead - Library Journal


A stately, wonderfully written debut novel that incorporates a few of the great archetypes: a disabled but resourceful young man, a potential Clytemnestra of a mom and a faithful dog. Writing to such formulas, with concomitant omniscience and world-weariness, has long been the stuff of writing workshops. Wroblewski is the product of one such place, but he seems to have forgotten much of what he learned there: He takes an intense interest in his characters; takes pains to invest emotion and rough understanding in them; and sets them in motion with graceful language (and, in eponymous young Edgar's case, sign language). At the heart of the book is a pup from an extremely rare breed, thanks to a family interest in Mendelian genetics; so rare is Almondine, indeed, that she finds ways to communicate with Edgar that no other dog and human, at least in literature, have yet worked out. Edgar may be voiceless, but he is capable of expressing sorrow and rage when his father suddenly dies, and Edgar decides that his father's brother, who has been spending a great deal of time with Edgar's mother, is responsible for the crime. That's an appropriately tragic setup, and Edgar finds himself exiled to the bleak wintry woods—though not alone, for he is now the alpha of his own very special pack. The story takes Jungle Book-ish turns: "He blinked at the excess moonlight in the clearing and clapped for the dogs. High in the crown of a charred tree, an owl covered its dished face, and one branch down, three small replicas followed. Baboo came at once. Tinder had begun pushing into the tall grass and he turned and trotted back." It resolves, however, in ways that will satisfy grown-up readers. The novel succeeds admirably in telling its story from a dog's-eye view that finds the human world very strange indeed. An auspicious debut: a boon for dog lovers, and for fans of storytelling that eschews flash. Highly recommended.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. How would Edgar's story have been different if he had been born with a voice? How would Edgar himself have been different? Since Edgar can communicate perfectly well in sign most of the time, why should having a voice make any difference at all?

2. At one point in this story, Trudy tells Edgar that what makes the Sawtelle dogs valuable is something that cannot be put into words, at least by her. By the end of the story, Edgar feels he understands what she meant, though he is equally at a loss to name this quality. What do you think Trudy meant?

3. How does Almondine's way of seeing the world differ from the human characters in this story? Does Essay's perception (which we can only infer) differ from Almondine's? Assuming that both dogs are examples of what John Sawtelle dubbed canis posterus, "the next dogs", what specifically can they do that other dogs cannot?

4. In what ways have dog training techniques changed in the last few decades? Do Edgar's own methods change over the course of the story? If so, why? Do different methods of dog training represent a trade-off of some kind, or are certain methods simply better? Would it be more or less difficult to train a breed of dogs that had been selected for many generations for their intellect?

5. Haunting is a prominent motif in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. How many ghosts, both literal and figurative, are in this story? In what ways are the ghosts alike? Who is haunted, and by whom?

6. One of the abiding mysteries in Edgar's life concerns how his parents met. In fact, Edgar is an inveterate snoop about it. Yet when Trudy finally offers to tell him, he decides he'd rather not know. What does that reveal about Edgar's character or his state of mind? Do you think he might have made a different decision earlier in the story?

7. At first glance, Henry Lamb seems an unlikely caretaker for a pair of Sawtelle dogs, yet Edgar feels that Tinder and Baboo will be safe with him. What is it about Henry that makes him fit? Would it have been better if Edgar had placed the dogs with someone more experienced? Why doesn't Edgar simply insist that all the dogs return home with him?

8. Claude is a mysterious presence in this story. What does he want and when did he start wanting it? What is his modus operandi? Would his methods work in the real world, or is such behavior merely a convenient trope of fiction? Two of the final chapters are told from Claude's point of view. Do they help explain his character or motivation?

9. In one of Edgar's favorite passages from The Jungle Book, Bagheera tells Mowgli that he was once a caged animal, until "one night I felt that I was Bagheera—the Panther—and no man's plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away." There is a dialectic in Edgar's story that is similarly concerned with the ideas of wildness and domestication. How does this manifest itself? What is the "wildest" element in the story? What is the most "domestic"?

10. Mark Doty has called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle "an American Hamlet." Certainly, there are moments that evoke that older drama, but many other significant story elements do not. Edgar's encounter with Ida Paine is one example out of many. Are other Shakespearean plays evoked in this story? Consider Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest. In what sense is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle like all Elizabethan stage drama? Is it important to know (or not know) that the story is, at some level, a retelling of an older tale? Do you think Elizabethan audiences were aware that Hamlet was itself a retelling of an older story?

11. Until it surfaces later in the story, some readers forget entirely about the poison that makes its appearance in the Prologue; others never lose track of it. Which kind of reader were you? What is the nature of the poison? When the man and the old herbalist argue in the Prologue, who did you think was right?

12. In the final moments of the story, Essay must make a choice. What do you think she decides, and why? Do you think all the dogs will abide by her decision?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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