Summary and book reviews of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

A Novel

By David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2008,
    576 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2009,
    480 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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About this Book

Book Summary

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm—and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires—spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes—the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain—create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.

Part I
Forte's Children

A Handful of Leaves

In the year 1919, Edgar’s grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he’d never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go. Twenty tons of rolling maple buried a man where Schultz had stood the moment before. As he helped unpile logs to extract the wretched man’s remains, Schultz remembered a pretty parcel of land he’d spied north and west of Mellen. The morning he signed the papers he rode one of his ponies along the logging road to his new property and picked out a spot in a clearing below a hill and by nightfall a workable pole stable stood on that ground. The next day he fetched the other pony and filled a yoked cart with supplies and the three of them walked back to his crude homestead, Schultz on foot, reins in ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How would Edgar's story have been different if he had been born with a voice? How would Edgar himself have been different? Since Edgar can communicate perfectly well in sign most of the time, why should having a voice make any difference at all?
  2. At one point in this story, Trudy tells Edgar that what makes the Sawtelle dogs valuable is something that cannot be put into words, at least by her. By the end of the story, Edgar feels he understands what she meant, though he is equally at a loss to name this quality. What do you think Trudy meant?
  3. How does Almondine's way of seeing the world differ from the human characters in this story? Does Essay's perception (which we can only infer) differ from Almondine's? ...
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Reviews

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As a shaggy dog tale, it doesn't get much better. The dogs practically luminesce in the gorgeous, precise prose with which Wroblewski conjures them. He is equally good at describing the dogs' physical characteristics and their inner lives ...

Dog lovers will take to this book like, well, like a retriever to water (beware, though, that you may come away feeling badly about treating your own dog like a pet rather than a glowingly, steadfastly sentient being). Yet the book also transcends its subject matter, and anyone who loves a good yarn, one that confidently soars well past the borders of believability, will take to it as well—and might even find themselves with the urge to head down to their local animal shelter.   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly - Tina Jordan

Don't let the book's massive size fool you: This is a good old-fashioned coming-of-age yarn. Rated: A.

New York Times - Janet Maslin

One of Mr. Wroblewski’s most impressive accomplishments here is to exert a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.

Chicago Tribune - Bruce Olds

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is not a family saga, but it is an ambitious, accomplished, though not flawless work. The author too often lapses into Hemingwayese, or piles on three descriptive details where two would do, or indulges a moment of portentous foreshadowing, and there is a scene or three that might have been cut or trimmed to the narrative's benefit.

None of this, however, diminishes the incandescent power of a novel that can only be declared a critical success. Is it not, after all, the blemish in beauty that most enchants us?

The Washington Post - David Wroblewski

Most of the story comes to us through a masterful, transparent voice: The author, the narrator, the pages -- everything fades away as we're drawn into this engrossing tale. But there are also a few inventive variations. Once in a while, we see events from a dog's point of view, in a strangely humane but inhuman perspective. Another chapter is made up of Edgar's first memories as a baby and toddler, and there's a chilling section told from the murderer's perspective.

Kirkus Reviews

A stately, wonderfully written debut novel…[Wroblewski] takes an intense interest in his characters; takes pains to invest emotion and rough understanding in them; and sets them in motion with graceful language… a boon for dog lovers, and for fans of storytelling that eschews flash. Highly recommended.

Library Journal

An excruciatingly captivating read…Ultimately liberating, though tragic and heart-wrenching, this book is unforgettable.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sustained by a momentum that has the crushing inevitability of fate, the propulsive narrative will have readers sucked in all the way through the breathtaking final scenes.

Reader Reviews
Karen

Good until the ending disappoints
I was ready to recommend this book to my book club until it ended. All that reading to be so disappointed in the end. I felt the author just wanted to end it, not caring what the reader would feel.

FaeryGramma

Worst Ending Ever
I am not a dog person but I learned so much about dogs and humans. This book was wonderful in language altho "melange" was used too much but what the heck happened to the plot? I could not believe the ending. HUH? [edited to remove plot ...   Read More

Sara

A Change in Perspective
Before I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, big books really weren't my thing. I picked it up because my Aunt was reading it, and once I did I rarely put it down - not during school, on the bus, or at home. Edgar taught me that just because you feel ...   Read More

Anita

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
I thought this was one of the strangest book I have ever read. At first the concept seemed plausible to some extent, but frankly I thought the ending was awful. It made no sense, and left a great deal of information out. Perhaps there is a ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Dog Training Methods & The Seeing Eye
Edgar Sawtelle would not have much to say—or sign—to the Dog Whisperer. Cesar Millan, the star of "The Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic Channel, is known for his "pack-oriented" philosophy, which traces canine behavior back to their survival instinct for living in highly organized packs led by a single, strong leader. As Millan's website states, "[I]n order to properly fulfill both our dogs and ourselves, we each need to become our canine's calm-assertive pack leader." And so Millan teaches dog owners to exert dominance over their dogs—a practice found in many dog behavior books. His work has drawn criticism from other trainers who believe that countering ...

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