I don’t know how it escaped me, but a draft of this review has been sitting around for a couple of months now. Better late than never! Over the past couple of years, my novel reading has suffered greatly due to “required” reading. I certainly chose wisely when I picked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.
Like the title says, this novel is the story of Edgar Sawtelle, a boy born mute in the northern Midwest. Along with his parents, they train a special (fictional) breed of dogs, the Sawtelle dogs. These dogs are especially perceptive…eerily so to outsiders. They are loyal and intelligent like no others. Edgar’s “muteness” does not prevent him from establishing a close relationship with these dogs as he creates a series of signs that convey countless commands. Though the family’s dogs are popular, they simply work to make ends meet. Life on the farm becomes even harder for Trudy and Edgar when Gar suddenly dies. As the days pass, Edgar begins to suspect that his father’s death may have been more than natural. After another tragic accident, he flees into the forest with three of his dogs on a journey to safety. Along the way, he comes of age and learns even more about the animals with whom he has so long worked.
Here, Wroblewski has created a coming of age story that draws from the history of literature. Yet with the addition of the dogs, and especially Edgar’s dog, Almondine, we have a completely fresh entry into this genre. In fact, when Wroblewski writes from Almondine’s, or any of the other dogs’, perspective, we have his best work. Not only do these sections change the way we look at dogs, they also provide insight into the nature of human to human and human to dog relationships.
There are loads of passages here worth unpacking from a spiritual or theological perspective. The characters aren’t particularly religious but their relationships with the dogs is certainly spiritual. There is much to think about and discuss regarding the role of fate and chance in the human experience. One could simply ask where is God in this story…how can or does God act in the world Wroblewski has created? More importantly, through each character, in drastically different but equally important and relevant ways, Wroblewski engages a variety of human responses to fate, chance, or divine action. Like so many recent works of art, this too dabbles in something of a nihilistic attitude; however, as in The Road, there is a glimmer of hope at the end.
Few writers have provided better first novels. Wroblewski’s prose envelops the reader throughout, and the last one hundred pages or so are literally impossible to put down. I have never turned pages with such anticipation and anxiety. Read this one with your favorite pet (preferably a dog) close by.