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October 8, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | October 8, 2008 |

When I first finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Oprah’s newest book du jour), my first impulse was to weep (again). My second was to go immediately to sleep. Sawtelle was too overwhelming, too powerful - just too much. I needed to escape it in order to fully embrace it. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a demanding read: it demands your time, your emotions, your intellect. And, as much as I hate to agree with the Big O, I can’t deny that she’s picked a winner this time, although I know many people will disagree.

Before you confuse me with an Oprahead, let me state for the record that I’m no big fan of the Win, but neither am I her biggest detractor. I could take her or leave her (even though I can’t slight anyone who gets people to read, regardless of the effects of her sponsorship or of the quality of some of her choices). But when I heard Oprah had recently endorsed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I altruistically thought of the Pajibaverse, who, I thought, might benefit by my taking one for the team. When Oprah added that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a must for anyone who loves dogs, I knew I was destined to read it. (Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who has dogs instead of children. Don’t judge me.)

I began the novel optimistically, but soon ground nearly to a halt. Difficult at first to get into, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle begins shrouded in mystery before plunging headlong into exposition. I persevered, and my efforts quickly paid off. It wasn’t long before I became entranced by the story, and I now consider The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to be one of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading for Pajiba. I’m glad I purchased it (instead of borrowing it from the library), because I’d have a hell of a time letting it go.

Now it’s time for the part of the review that concerns the novel’s plot, but before I get to it, I’ll be upfront and say that I heeded Oprah’s advice and did not read the book jacket (which, she said, gave too much away). Although I hate to agree with her again (I know, I know), I must admit this was good advice. I naively thought I knew all that the novel entailed (a mute boy and his dogs), but I was wrong. Those who choose to keep the rest of the plot a mystery will have, as I did, the pleasure of watching a jewel unfold before their eyes.

I won’t give any spoilers here, but I will say that early in the novel it becomes clear that Wroblewski is retelling Shakespeare. To say which play gives too much away (once you recognize the source, you’ll know where the rest of it is headed), but I will say it’s brilliantly done. Wroblewski does more than just take an old play and plunk it into the twentieth century; he makes it come alive, adding depth and focus and greater understanding.

Like Shakespeare’s plays, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is divided into five parts. These “acts” behave much the way they do in drama. The first section sets the stage, as it were, by outlining the history of Edgar Sawtelle, whose grandfather once turned an old farm into a kennel to make his dream - dog breeding - a reality. Although untrained, Sawtelle aims (through trial and error) to breed a new kind of dog.

Years pass, and Edgar Sawtelle, is born. Generations of dogs have been bred since those first days, and their lineage is varied and complex. Like many of the dogs that have developed under Sawtelle care, Edgar himself is also quite unique. Although physically okay, Edgar Sawtelle is totally mute. He begins to develop a unique relationship with the dogs, especially with one named Almondine, and communicates with them through his own form of sign language.

Edgar grows, learning the ways of dog breeding and training, until he approaches adulthood. At this point in the story, obstacles must always be overcome; such is the nature of life. I won’t say anymore about the plot (those who want a spoiler can easily find it at Amazon), but needless to say that Edgar’s path to adulthood will not be an easy one. In the meantime, readers are provided with a unique, powerful look at a young man struggling with the world around him, and his work with the Sawtelle dogs allows us to see the humanity possible in man’s best friend.

Wroblewski’s prose is simple, almost McCarthy-like in its rhythm (but with more punctuation). Simple though it may be, Wroblewski’s prose beautifully renders Edgar’s world:

October. Dry leaves chattered beneath the apple trees. For three nights running, pearl flakes of snow materialized around Edgar and Almondine as they walked from the kennel to the house. Almondine poked her nose into the apparition of her own breath while Edgar watched a snowflake dissolve in midair, one and then another. Those that made it to the ground quivered atop blades of grass, then wilted into ink drops. At the porch, they turned to look at their footsteps, a pair of dark trails through the lawn.

After gushing about the plot and about the prose, I had to wonder: Is it really as perfect as I’m making it sound? Is my love of dogs clouding my judgment? No, on both counts. Even my love of dogs, which admittedly adds greatly to my love of Edgar Sawtelle, can only take this book so far. That said, of course Sawtelle isn’t perfect; there’s no such thing as a perfect novel, although that might make an interesting comment diversion. (I have a few titles I could throw into the ring, although it’s possible, I’m sure, to find flaws even in those.) I could quibble about the length, which borders on just a wee bit long (perhaps more than a wee), but if I’m being truthful, I barely noticed the length once the story of Edgar grabbed me. Some details regarding dog breeding and training were probably not necessary, but these tidbits were generally cleanly interspersed throughout the text and did not feel burdensome to this reader.

Other flaws are easily diminished once one remembers that Wroblewski is invoking Shakespeare. For example, a few scenes seemed at first quite unrealistic, but these scenes become more understandable when one remembers the source material. Many readers also hated the ending, but those who recognize the Shakespearean parallel shouldn’t be surprised by how it all ends.

Ultimately, you don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy Wroblewski’s novel; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is intelligent, moving, and profound. If you decide to tackle it, chances are good you won’t be disappointed.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Coming of Age in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski / Jennifer McKeown

Books | October 8, 2008 |

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