Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review of 'Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

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.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Photo Says it All

Thanks to Elif for finding this photo!

Monday Musings--Favorite Shoes

Since today is Monday, and not everyone is ready to jump right in to the work week on Mondays, I thought I would pose an exercise that might humor us, divert us from the news of the day, or perhaps give pause for reflection.

My question is: What is your favorite pair of shoes?

It is a fairly open ended question. They can be any pair you have owned but, as in my case, not necessarily have worn. They can be your ballet shoes when you were five years old, your Wellingtons, your saddle shoes (some might be dating ourselves here), your riding boots or whatever else you choose.

Then, tell us the story. If they are your favorite shoes, surely there is one.
Here is mine:

Grandma's Booties

I had two grandma's. Some people have none, some have half a dozen. I had two and my favorite one was Grandma Hilvers, my mother's mother. She lived in the same clapboard house on the first rise west of the Mississippi, where my mother grew up, in Dubuque Iowa.

Allow me to divert a minute. Two weeks ago, one of my brothers queried the rest of the family as to whether they remembered where that house was. Seems he recently met someone at work who hailed from Dubuque and the question arose. No one could come up with the answer despite spending at least a dozen summers there growing up. Two hours later the answer just popped into my head. Go figure. Hadn't written that address on an envelope in probably thirty years.

1460 Dodge Street, now cemented over by Highway 20 which runs east to Chicago and west through cities I recognized like Sioux City, Casper, Cody, Boise and stops at the Pacific Ocean in Yaquina Bay, Oregon...not far from Portland. I have a dear friend in Portland, have never been there, might follow Highway 20 in its entirety some day.

Anyway, the Hilvers family was basically impoverished. They didn't see it as a bad thing, but compared to my father's childhood with country clubs and fancy parties, the Hilvers' humble lifestyle with two entire families, grandparents, parents, and three kids, crammed into three bedrooms was substantially lower key. Every gift we received from Grandma and Grandpa Hilvers was endearingly hand-made including the booties I received when I was pregnant with my first daughter, Jennifer. They were so incredibly tiny I couldn't imagine they would ever fit a human, but they did.

And, as often happens with me, I lost track of them after our third daughter's first few months of life when I could no longer squeeze her tiny feet into the soft, cozy footware. I was sure I had packed them away but probably not as carefully as I should have, given their significance. My excuse was that I was a working mom, running my own flower business and raising three daughters, tending a husband, cooking, walking dogs, driving to soccer games and violin lessons, the whole nine yards.

When Jenny was a sophomore in college my husband and I decided expand our house, something we should have done years earlier but couldn't afford. To make a long story shorter many disasters befell us during this project including the wholesale deluge of our basement over our storage shelves in late September. I mean, we needed Noah's Ark just to navigate the waters that went straight from the grey, rain laden skies into our house with a force like Niagra Falls.

The clean-up process was a nightmare and, unfortunately, some of it was put off until after Christmas. The time frame for a florist from October through December 25 is hellacious.
So, in the calm of a dreary January Saturday I began to pull down the boxes of memories that still lay on the storage shelves. With trepidation I opened one, now slightly dusted with mold, to find layer upon layer of baby clothes, laundered, neatly folded and layered with tissue. Most of them were ruined, which broke my heart. But for some strange reason both Grandma Hilvers' baby booties and the christening gown she had hand sewn and embroidered, survived relatively unscathed.

You would have thought, for all the happy tears I shed, that I'd discovered a million dollars tucked away for a rainy day and then forgotten, when in fact it was a rainy day that had spared something that is worth a whole lot more.

If you have a pair of favorite shoes, tell us about them in the comment area of my blog.
I'd love to read about them!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yes, Virginia, There Is An Internet

I can't believe it's been almost two weeks since I posted here. Maybe the cold, grey days...maybe the overwhelming sense I get at the holidays. Deadlines and more deadlines. Oh, and puppies too.

Anyway, I read a post on author, Laura Benedict's blog that quotes Mark Tavani, a Random House editor, on the state of the industry which, no surprise, is as dark as the state of the rest of the economic world. He speaks to how publishing, and I must add every other business, has been adjusting to corporate takeovers. How, by becoming larger, many businesses are finding survival more difficult.

Which certainly is bad news, but it is also good news because with trauma comes change and that kind of change is rarely a bad thing.

A futurist came to our city a few weeks ago and this 72 year old man's main thrust was that the internet is going to impact our lives in ways we are unable to comprehend. And we thought we were just getting a fix on the least I thought that!

Then this morning the Detroit Free Press has an article on its front page, which has been nothing but bad news for the last eighteen months, which spoke to how retailing on the internet for the beginning of December is up 9%.

So for persons whose lives have been jolted or surely will be jolted by the economic events of the day the internet remains our best friend.

So getting back to Mr. Tavani, he too sees the internet as promising great things for the publishing industry. He writes that the most wonderful thing about books are the stories they convey and the medium will never change that.

It could be worse. We could have no friends at all.