‘Edgar Sawtelle’: Fine storytelling, haunting character
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski. Harper Collins Publishers. 562 pages. $25.95.By Elizabeth Cook
Edgar Sawtelle was born mute, but not deaf or impaired in any other way. He helps his parents painstakingly train their rare Sawtelle dogs, with his own Almondine always by his side. He has an exceptional mind and can come up with an obscure word like “lepidopteral” to solve a crossword puzzle. And he has a sixth sense that gives him tragic insights few others have.
Insights that can be very painful.
Wisconsin writer David Wroblewski has created a unique, unforgettable character in his first novel, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.” On the surface, this might appear to be a story about a boy and his dog, but this novel is much more.
It’s the engrossing story of a peaceful way of life torn apart by jealousy, manipulation and loss, and a 14-year-old’s determination to make things right.
The Sawtelles live in their own world on their farm outside Mellen, Wisc. ó the world of Sawtelle dogs. The shepherd-like breed is a hybrid, developed by Edgar’s grandfather and refined by father Gar. The dogs are stoic animals, inherently wise and trained to be even smarter. And they are unfailingly loyal.
Raising the dogs takes every member of the small family. Edgar and his mother, Trudy, care for and train them. Gar does that and more, meticulously documenting every ancestor, pup, placement and characteristic to continue breeding these companionable dogs ó dogs who look you in the eye to sense your meaning and seem to look into your soul.
Almondine, for example, has already become the Sawtelles’ personal pet before Edgar is born, but she immediately becomes his protector, moving into action when Trudy falls asleep while nursing and does not realize the baby is in distress.
She crossed the room and paused beside the chair, and she became in that moment, as was ever after, a cautious dog, for suddenly it seemed important that she be right in this; and looking at the two of them there, one silently bawling, one slumped in graceful exhaustion, certainty unfolded in her the way morning light fills a north room. She drew her tongue along the his mother’s face, just once, very deliberately, then stepped back.
Edgar wakes with her beside him every day.
Into this idyllic scene comes Gar’s brother, Claude, just out of the Navy. Claude makes himself useful around the farm. Having grown up there, he has a wealth of knowledge about Sawtelle dogs and animal husbandry. But his longstanding rivalry with his older brother soon resurfaces, and it’s not long until a confrontation sends Claude off in a huff to live elsewhere.
But Claude has not put the farm behind him. And soon Edgar will learn the lengths to which Claude will go to work himself back into Gar’s world ó farm, dogs, wife and all.
Wary of his uncle the moment he shows up, Edgar does not let himself fit into Claude’s plans. And after Gar suddenly dies and appears to Edgar as a rainy apparition, the boy’s deep grief is compounded by hatred.
Wroblewski paints a vivid picture of Edgar’s encounter with the apparition.
Instead of raindrops, he saw a man.
His head, his torso. Arms held away from his body. All formed by raindrops suspended and instantly replaced. Near the ground, the figure’s legs frayed into tattered blue-gray sprays of water. When a gust of wind passed through the yard, the shape flickered and the branches of the apple trees twisted behind it, refracted as though through melted glass.
The scene plays out, with the ghost convincing Edgar it is his father and pointing him toward evidence of Claude’s crime.
“Whatever he’s wanted, he’s taken, ever since he was a child,” the deceased Gar tells Edgar, eventually fading away and leaving Edgar feeling drained, haunted and confused.
Edgar’s happy, peaceful way of life has ended, and he wakes the next day to a new world of suspicion, agony and confusion. He watches, waits and silently seethes. Then, in a feverish attempt to expose Claude’s trickery to his mother, he makes a tragic mistake that sends him fleeing the farm, not to be seen for months.
That journey, taken with three young dogs at his side, tests Edgar in every way. It tests his resourcefulness and endurance ó and ultimately, his connection to home.
Wroblewski has crafted a luminous novel, deftly portraying the farm setting and surroundings and developing characters that have depth. Always in the third person, the narrative sometimes narrows in on one character’s point of view. But the driving force is the virtually wordless Edgar. He mastered sign language by the age of 4 ó he even signs to the dogs ó and he is the family wordsmith when it comes to naming puppies. But his exchanges with his parents, uncle and others are brief and unrevealing. He speaks with his actions, not his words. By the end of the story, Edgar Saw-telle’s actions have said volumes.