The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
576 pp., $25.95
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Man's Best Friend
I was married when my first dog died. I had come late into owning a dog, since I grew up in a family of seven children, and there was no room for animals—furry or otherwise. This dog—a beagle—was my husband's throughout medical school. His name was Baboon, after Dr. Leonard Bailey's groundbreaking 1984 surgery, in which the heart of a baboon was placed into the chest of "Baby Fae," a neonatal born with a heart defect.
When our Baboon died, my primary feeling was grief, of course, the gnawing ache of absence and loss, but what astonished me was the intensity of the sadness. All for a dog.
Soon after, we brought two more beagles home—brothers from the same litter—and they surprised me all over again. One was a worrywart who stuck to our heels, eager to please. He read our faces before we issued commands. The other, not so much. He invented new ways to circumvent the rules, and would even pause to glance our way, to see if we were watching, before his misdeed. While our friends expounded on their two–year–old's inability to understand the difference between wrong and right, I fought the urge to tell them about our beagles, how they knew.
I say all this because I've just finished the book that everyone's talking about—David Wroblewski's debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Yes, it's a story of a mute boy and his dog, but before you write it off as another "dog" book, let me explain why I think it's so much more than that, especially for those who aren't dog owners. (Warning: plot disclosures ahead. You may want to trust me and get the book right now.)
Edgar Sawtelle, the 14–year–old hero, is born into a family that breeds and trains dogs. But not just any dogs. These are a special line—Sawtelles—bred in non–traditional ways. They are the "next dogs," as Edgar's grandfather John calls them—animals that are strangely and acutely aware of their owner's feelings and wishes. They've been bred for an elusive quality—"not temperament … not physical qualities, which were easily measured, but how the dog combined all these things, for the whole of every dog was always greater than the sum of its parts." That's why Edgar's family spends an arduous eighteen months with the dogs, rather than the usual eight to ten weeks, before they release them to their respective owners.
Edgar's dog is Almondine, the epitome of Sawtelle dogs. She knows things, senses things. When Edgar is just a baby, she glimpses him wailing, silently, in his sleeping mother's arms, so she pads over to the mother and licks her cheek, alerting the mother of her son's hunger. In that singular moment, Almondine realizes she has a job to do; she must care for Edgar.
At first, Edgar lives a happy rural existence with his parents, Gar and Trudy. He and Almondine play hide–and–seek. He learns to communicate by signing. He feeds and waters the dogs, cleans their pens, and grooms them. When litters are born, he searches the dictionary for unusual names—names like Pout and Umbra and Essay. Trudy, a demanding perfectionist, teaches him the methods of dog training.
Enter Claude, Edgar's uncle and Gar's brother. Unresolved tension smolders between the men, and Edgar remains confused as to its source. Claude defies Edgar's father, every chance he gets, and privately divulges a story about Gar that Edgar can't and won't believe.
When Gar dies a tragic death, Edgar blames himself. After all, he is the one who discovers his father and cannot summon help by phone. Not long after, when the misty outline of his father's ghost appears to him, he becomes convinced that his father has been murdered. In a lame attempt to expose the truth, Edgar makes a fatal mistake, and his mother, perplexed by his behavior and alarmed by possible consequences, urges him to run away.
Edgar does—with three of the dogs tailing him. Almondine is not among them, and this causes him much consternation. For weeks, he and the dogs forge their way into the heart of the Chequamegon National Forest, and amidst his small–time robberies and hours of overwhelming homesickness, he grows into a new knowledge, a different perception of how things are. It's as though the dogs are teaching him, a gradual symbiosis that makes this book shine.
In one final, frantic attempt to mete out justice, Edgar returns home. Still, his trusting mother is slow on the uptake, and Claude, who has now moved in with Trudy and taken over the family business, deftly thwarts Edgar's efforts.
For all its obvious references to Hamlet (Trudy is Gertrude; Claude is Claudius), the novel is remarkably fresh and unpredictable to the end. Wroblewski has an uncanny ability to make palpable for us the bones and muscle of his characters—what they mean and feel—and in this way, his dogs and his humans are more alike than dissimilar. Which, for this reader, is exactly the way it is.
One final note: don't miss the Tangents section on the author's website (http://www.davidwroblewski.com/tangents.html). Read Virginia Morrell's intriguing article "Minds of Their Own," from the March 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine, and watch Carolyn Scott and her exuberant dog Rookie perform a dance routine, based on simple commands. Priceless.
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. Her book Eve: A Novel of the First Woman is due in January 2009 from Delacorte Press.
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