Excerpt from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

A Novel

by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 576 pages
    Oct 2009, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Print Excerpt

Explaining Gus to his wife was going to be the least of his worries.

In fact, it didn’t take long for the fuss to die down. When he wanted to, Edgar’s grandfather could radiate a charming enthusiasm, one of the reasons Mary had been attracted to him in the first place. He could tell a good story about the way things were going to be. Besides, they had been living in her parents’ house for over a year and she was as eager as he to get out on her own. They completed the purchase of the land by mail and telegram.

This the boy Edgar would come to know because his parents kept their most important documents in an ammunition box at the back of their bedroom closet. The box was military gray, with a big clasp on the side, and it was metal, and therefore mouseproof. When they weren’t around he’d sneak it out and dig through the contents. Their birth certificates were in there, along with a marriage certificate and the deed and history of ownership of their land. But the telegram was what interested him most - a thick, yellowing sheet of paper with a Western Union legend across the top, its message consisting of just six words, glued to the backing in strips: offer accepted see adamski re papers. Adamski was Mr. Schultz’s lawyer; his signature appeared on several documents in the box. The glue holding those words to the telegram had dried over the years, and each time Edgar snuck it out, another word dropped off. The first to go was papers, then re, then see. Eventually Edgar stopped taking the telegram out at all, fearing that when accepted fluttered into his lap, his family’s claim to the land would be reversed.

He didn’t know what to do with the liberated words. It seemed wrong to throw them away, so he dropped them into the ammo box and hoped no one would notice.

What little they knew about Schultz came from living in the buildings he’d made. For instance, because the Sawtelles had done a lot of remodeling, they knew that Schultz worked without levels or squares, and that he didn’t know the old carpenter’s three-­four-­five rule for squar-­ ing corners. They knew that when he cut lumber he cut it once, making do with shims and extra nails if it was too short, and if it was too long, wedging it in at an angle. They knew he was thrifty because he filled the basement walls with rocks to save on the cost of cement, and every spring, water seeped through the cracks until the basement flooded ankle-­deep. And this, Edgar’s father said, was how they knew Schultz had never poured a basement before.

They also knew Schultz admired economy - had to admire it to make a life in the woods - because the house he built was a miniature version of the barn, all its dimensions divided by three. To see the similarity, it was best to stand in the south field, near the birch grove with the small white cross at its base. With a little imagination, subtracting out the changes the Sawtelles had made - the expanded kitchen, the extra bed-­ room, the back porch that ran the length of the west side - you’d notice that the house had the same steep gambrel roof that shed the snow so well in the winter, and that the windows were cut into the house just where the Dutch doors appeared at the end of the barn. The peak of the roof even overhung the driveway like a little hay hood, charming but useless. The buildings looked squat and friendly and plain, like a cow and her calf lying at pasture. Edgar liked looking back at their yard; that was the view Schultz would have seen each day as he worked in the field picking rocks, pulling stumps, gathering his herd for the night.

Innumerable questions couldn’t be answered by the facts alone. Was there a dog to herd the cows? That would have been the first dog that ever called the place home, and Edgar would have liked to know its name. What did Schultz do at night without television or radio? Did he teach his dog to blow out candles? Did he pepper his morning eggs with gunpowder, like the voyageurs? Did he raise chickens and ducks? Did he sit up nights with a gun on his lap to shoot foxes? In the middle of winter, did he run howling down the rough track toward town, drunk and bored and driven out of his mind by the endless harmonica chord the wind played through the window sash? A photograph of Schultz was too much to hope for, but the boy, ever inward, imagined him stepping out of the woods as if no time had passed, ready to give farming one last try - a compact, solemn man with a handlebar mustache, thick eye-­ brows, and sad brown eyes. His gait would swing roundly from so many hours spent astride the ponies and he’d have a certain grace about him. When he stopped to consider something, he’d rest his hands on his hips and kick a foot out on its heel and he’d whistle. More evidence of Schultz: opening a wall to replace a rotted-­out win-­ dow, they found handwriting on a timber, in pencil:

Excerpted from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski Copyright © 2008 by David Wroblewski. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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