The Story of Edgar Sawtelle takes place in the northern Wisconsin countryside in the middle of the 20th Century. Set against this idyllic backdrop, with an iconic red barn as its centerpiece, Larry Wroblewski breathes life into a quintessential coming-of-age story – the story about a boy and his dogs – that, on the surface, seems to capture the pastoral American dream. Wroblewski, however, subtly transcends these recognizable conventions with a story that is, at once, surprisingly modern and tragically universal.
Using Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an armature for its plot, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an archetypal story of greed, sorrow, legacy, and madness. And despite the fact that we recognize the plot’s major landmarks and know the story’s ultimate destination, we cannot help but marvel at the intricacy and depth of Wroblewski’s storytelling. For him, the plot is merely a jumping-off point to explore the richness of life from numerous points of view (even a dog’s).
Edgar Sawtelle is a fourteen-year-old boy, who was born mute, perfectly healthy but unable to utter a single voiced word, who speaks to his mother and father in a half-invented sign language. His gift is an uncanny ability to communicate with the Sawtelle dogs, a fictional family breed, started by Edgar’s grandfather, who’s vision was to create the “next dog,” the perfect ideal of man’s best friend – a working dog whose signature trait is companionship. Working alongside his mother and father, Gar and Trudy, and his ever-present companion, Almondine, Edgar moves about his world with confident ease, continuing his grandfather’s tradition, meticulously breeding, documenting, and training each successive generation of the remarkable Sawtelle dogs. The family farm, butting up against the Chequamegon wilderness, is Edgar’s perfect world, the only kingdom he could ever want; the Sawtelle dogs, his only purpose in life.
Edgar’s familial bliss is threatened by the return of his uncle, Claude, to the family farm and with him the tensions of a life-long rivalry with Gar. Claude’s calculated brooding and his perverse cruelty towards animals cause Edgar to watch him with wary curiosity. Edgar’s world is shattered by Gar’s unexpected death, witnessed only by a helpless Edgar. From here the Shakespearean machinations take over, matching the plot from Hamlet almost scene by scene. Claude quickly steps in to claim Gar’s role within the farm, the family, and Trudy’s affections. Edgar, suffering from paralyzing silent sorrow and reeling from phantasmic visions of his dead father, sets out to prove Claude murdered his father. Wroblewski manages to craft these scenes with enough élan that it never feels contrived.
Edgar’s blind anguish isolates him from Trudy and even his Ophelia-like companion, Almondine. Betrayed and alone, Edgar’s frustration boils over and causes a tragic accident. He’s forced to flee into the Chequamegon wilderness with three yearlings from a litter he raised all by himself. Other critics have described Edgar’s time in the wilderness as his “King Lear” moment (borrowing, once again from the Bard) – a period of madness and catharsis. He comes to terms with his grief and realizes the limitations of his adolescent perceptions. He laments having turned his back on Trudy and his beloved Almondine. Confronting his own demons, Edgar understands that he must return to the farm to also confront Claude, and his inevitable tragic fate.
At its heart, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a meditation on communication – both its power and its limitations – and the way we connect with our world. Edgar’s greatest limitation is also his greatest gift; his muteness is accompanied by his ability to see. The Sawtelle dogs possess remarkable powers of insight and intuition. Claude and Gar’s rivalry stems from an elemental failure to even consider the other’s point of view. In his sorrow, Edgar shuns both his mother and Almondine, isolating himself from his only sources of solace. Claude’s apparent aloofness only hides his wicked persuasiveness.
While studying his father’s meticulous files on the Sawtelle dogs, Edgar realizes that each dog’s record tells its “story” – its makeup, temperament, talents, limitations, all of the things that make it unique. In this light, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is more than a story in the narrative sense; it’s also a document chronicling the evolution of a wonderfully unique literary character, meticulously brought to life through Larry Wroblewski’s breathtaking and elegantly considered prose. This is a stunning debut novel.