I recently finished reading a fantastic novel, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski.
Books about dogs and their humans have abounded at the top of the best seller lists for the past decade and have warmed the hearts of readers for centuries. My earliest memory of a heart wrenching dog story is of Disney’s “Old Yeller.” Another favorite is “Shaggy Muses, the Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton and Emily Bronte.” More recently “Marley and Me” by John Grogan is a delightful read. And Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” promises to be another.
But I think far and away, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” has them all beat on language, story, craft and depth. It is a work that will remain in the minds and hearts of readers everywhere for decades to come.
The novel’s forboding prologue tells of an American soldier who, while stationed in the Korean War, trades medicine to an herbalist for his dying grandson in exchange for a deadly poison in an antique cruet. It was 1952 and the soldier declines to reveal his reason for wanting the potion.
Edgar is the long-awaited child of Gar and Trudy Sawtelle who married in 1951. Trudy had brought to the marriage an uncanny ability to train and understand Gar’s dogs like none other while he focused on the heredity of their lines and the details of breeding. His goal was to create dogs like no other that was a cross of all the best dogs he could find and call them simply ‘Sawtelle dogs.’
Edgar is preceeded in birth by two miscarried siblings and a brother who is stillborn and tenderly buried by Gar at the base of a birch grove on his property. Edgar is born a mute but his condition never comes between him and either the animals nor the people with whom he communicates except for his nemesis, his Uncle Claude who is unwilling to learn to read or use sign language.
Edgar becomes an integral part of his family’s dog breeding business and one of his tasks early on is selecting names for the pups, a challenge that becomes another form of communication for him.
From the time he was conceived Almondine, one of the Sawtelle dogs, is Edgar’s mentor, his protector and his muse. The idyllic setting and peaceful routines are, however, shattered with the arrival of Gar’s brother, Claude. Claude is a ne’er do well, a dog fighter and the discontented sibling and the thorn is Gar’s side. But Gar’s sense of familial obligation makes room in his heart and on his farm for the prodigal brother.
For the emotionless imposer, a take on Hamlet’s Claudius, “It was never a question of whether Claude could learn to do something, just a question of whether it would be worthwhile and how long it would take.” So eventually he finds a way to get rid of Gar, marry his wife and take over the kennel.
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” seeks to reveal the answers to several mysteries besides who caused Gar’s death. Edgar obsesses over learning the true story of how his parents met. But when Trudy finally tells him had has lost interest. And on several occasions Trudy asks her son if he knows yet what is so unique about a Sawtelle dog which, until the end, he cannot answer.
After his murder Gar comes to his son as an apparition during a driving rain storm to warn him about Claude. And Ida Paine, the ancient proprietor of Popcorn Corners’ grocery, to whom God told a secret when she was born, gives Edgar a psychic vision about his uncle, the old man in Korea and the antique cruet. “’And if you go,” she whispered, “don’t you come back, not for nothing. Don’t let the wind change your mind.’”
In the end I was left with the sense that it would be the Sawtelle dogs, Gar Sawtelle’s vision, the mutts he bred for their awesome individual qualities they’d bring to the future, that would eventually inherit the earth.
Essay, Edgar’s alpha, was the one who understood the meaning of the devastating fire, who then led the other dogs “through fence after fence...They would follow or they would not, she had only made the possibility clear.”
That was the secret of the Sawtelle dogs, their ability to choose. And, in the west, Forte the ghostly forefather of them all, stood on the treeline beyond the field. Essay “looked behind her one last time...along the way they’d come...turned and made her choice and began to cross.”
Beyond the suspense, compassion and insight of the story itself is the skill with which David Wrobelwski spins it. His imagery, dialogues and interplay of characters and scenes is deft and delicious.
“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” is the debut novel of a 48 year old software designer but I have a suspicion the literary world has, fortunately, not read the last of David Wroblewski.