The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a long, eventful, and
whisper-quiet book. The story envelopes you so completely and so gently that you
can almost hear the brush of Edgar's sleeves as he signs to his parents.
David Wroblewski hit on a brilliant narrative device when he decided to rob his main character of his voice. Edgar can hear and understand but not speakjust like his dogs. Bringing Edgar down to the level of his dogs shows just how elevated they are as a species. The book gathers speed by building scene upon scene of subtly amazing communication between boy and dog. In one instance, Edgar and Almondine conspire to be secretive. Edgar painstakingly discerns where to step on each floorboard of the creaky staircase in the old farmhouse so that he can descend without making a sound, and he teaches her the path, picking up and placing her paws on each quiet spot. In another instance, Edgar and Almondine conspire to shout. Edgar, desperate to prevent his uncle Claude from shooting a stray dog in the woods, signs for Almondine to come to him, then stay and speak. She begins to bay, the stray dog bolts at the sound, and Claude loses his aim.
These moments are possible because the dogs that Edgar and his parents breed are extraordinarily responsive and keen, the product of generations of cultivation. But not one of the Sawtelle dogs is purebred; the Sawtelles breed for intelligence only. Edgar's father keeps meticulous breeding records in order to discern "the story of the dogwhat a dog meant." Sawtelle dogs are distinguishable by a certain knowingness in their eyes, a certain heightened ability to perceive and understand their humans. Edgar's parents have a near-religious faith in the possibilities of animal training. "From the moment they opened their eyes the dogs were taught to watch and listen and trust. To think and choose. This was the lesson behind every minute of training. They were taught something beyond simple obedience: that through the training all things could be spoken." In other words, the Sawtelles teach their dogs a language. With each new litter, Edgar combs through the dictionary to name the pups, coming up with lovely nouns like Finch, Umbra, and Tinder. But their communication does not, ultimately travel through words. They connect by gesture, by look, by pure animal intuition. Training serves to "draw up the ties between them as though shaping the world from scratch." Ultimately, Edgar seeks to transcend the need to command his dogs, wanting only to ask them for their graceful actions and have them fully consent rather then obey.
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 ("He was moving in a strangely light-footed way for such a solidly constructed dog, lifting and dropping his paws as if suspended by invisible strings and merely paddling along for steering.") and their inner lives ("For she was not without her own selfish desires: to hold things motionless, to measure herself against them and find herself present, to know that she was alive precisely because he needn't acknowledge her in casual passing; that utter constancy might prevail if she attended the world so carefully.").
But as the book jacket hints, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is really two stories superimposed upon one another. The slow-moving chronicle of Edgar's boyhood among the dogs and his education in dog training gives way to a fast-paced, deeply melodramatic, magical realist, murder mystery when his father dies unexpectedly and his uncle woos his mother. This is a strange pairing indeed: Lassie meets Hamlet, complete with the dead father's return as a ghost. I'm not sure what made Wrobewksi think that he could retell one of the English language's most canonical pieces of literature as a dog story, but it works. It works because Wroblewski believes so unfailingly in his own story and plunges into it with the unquestioning eagerness of one of his own canine characters.
But as a shaggy dog tale, it could have used a quick grooming. Edgar almost never feels like a child, just as the setting never really feels like the 1950s. Wroblewski trades specificity for suggestiveness so often that his story blurs at the edges, like the soft-focus painting on the book cover. There are several plot pointsEdgar's fascination with the unexplained Starchild Colony in Canada, a voluble ghost in a taciturn man's shedthat never go anywhere. But these burrs are easily overlooked, because there is nothing as pleasurable as starting out the summer with a big, fat book, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle justifies its own length and heft.
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 welland might even find themselves with the urge to head down to their local animal shelter.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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