The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
This story is a modern day take on Hamlet. The setting is northern Wisconsin during the sixties and seventies and revolves around a family that is raising a fictional breed of dog. Edgar, the son, is mute, and must sign or write in order to communicate. By having been given the task of naming the dogs from the dictionary, he has a tremendous vocabulary.
The prose in this book is phenomenal. Many times it borders on poetry and I kept rereading passages to get the full grasp of the meaning. The point of view often changes between characters and a few chapters are even told from the dog’s point of view. There is one chapter in particular where he discusses the dog’s perception of time, and really, only very poetic prose could capture this shift in consciousness. I felt like I was reading the first novel of someone who will one day have the stature of Steinbeck. There is a touch of magical realism in parts…such as the appearance of the ghost of “Hamlet’s” (Edgar’s) father.
The overarching sense that one gets is that the author was extremely patient; that he had no rush to proceed to the next sentence until he was fully satisfied with the present one. Because the prose is so dense, deep and beautifully crafted, the gratification is in the journey, as in our own lives, not the ending. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will just say that I was unprepared for it. It might behoove the reader to peruse a short summary of Hamlet before taking on the book. Although the novel is titled “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” I felt in the end it was equally about the dogs, and in fact, it could even be called “The Story of a Barn”. The people live in a moral world and live the consequences of their decisions, and as in stories like “Crime and Punishment” or any Shakespearean tragedy, the author eloquently shows how evil choices can metastasize into something much worse. The dogs, meanwhile, exist on a higher plane and in the end are immune to the vagaries of this human morality play. They don’t deserve to suffer from our actions.
So the themes twist about those of communication, journeys, patience, discipline and human evil. Being so carefully written and researched I learned a lot about many peripheral subjects too, such as dog training. Did you know that dog learn hand signal commands much more easily than vocal commands?
I wrote this little review because I felt it was one of the more important books I’ve read in a long time. A few questions were left unanswered for me and I would appreciate having someone to discuss them with. In fact, for this very reason, this would be an excellent choice for a book club. Although a serious one…one has to savor this book…it’s not possible to blow right through it.