Read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle before a Film is Made

David Wrobleski
Ecco, 608 pp. ISBN: 978-0061374234
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Have you ever loved a pet so much that you imagined that it understood you better than most people? Do you recall your first childhood dog and how you felt safe and affirmed in its presence. If so, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle will be your kind of novel. David Wrobleski’s debut novel first appeared in 2008 and immediately went into reprint. Movie rights were recently optioned to two powerful producers with the resources to bring it to the screen: Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey.  

The first third of this book is truly a boy and his dog story. The boy in question is the titular Edgar Sawtelle, the miracle child born to Gar and Trudy Sawtelle after a series of miscarriages that would have left a woman less determined than Trudy to stop trying. The Sawtelles are dog breeders in northern Wisconsin near the Chequamegon National Forest (which factors into the narrative). Edgar is everything his parents could want—bright, dutiful, kind—with one exception: he cannot speak. Doctors are baffled as he hears just fine, learns quickly, and has no discernible damage to his vocal cords. Nonetheless, Edgar’s is a world is which he communicates by sign language and written notes.

That’s fine by Gar and Trudy, as they’re already accustomed to signing—in their dog training. Sawtelle dogs are special. Forget Charles Darwin and think Gregor Mendel. Thanks to breeding methods developed by Gar’s father, Sawtelle dogs are not purebred show dogs, but something even better: independent animals that intuit human needs, but which also respond to visual commands with unfailing obedience. Nobody can buy a Sawtelle puppy; it takes 18 months of exacting training to create such a dog. Edgar’s first experience with a Sawtelle dog is through his faithful companion, Almondine. If you’ve ever owned a dog, the novel’s few chapters that see through Almondine’s eyes will seem so “right” to you that you may tear up in remembrance of when you first felt that human/canine bond. In Edgar’s case, that bond is exceptionally intense as he communicates as much on Almondine’s level as that of “normal” human interaction. He is, in essence, a bipedal Sawtelle dog.

Wroblewski takes us inside the dog-training barn, the meticulous recordkeeping required to run a breeding program, and the human dynamics of the Sawtelle nuclear family unit.  The nostalgic feel of the book’s first third is interrupted when Gar’s brother, Claude, shows up. The brothers also have a bond, but not necessarily a good one; Claude is the rogue of the Sawtelle human litter. The books middle section plays on fraternal tensions, and the last third takes a more tragic/sinister turn. Parts of it are evocative of Hamlet, but I don’t wish to give anything away.

The novel’s tonal shifts failed to charm some critics, though Wroblewski won several first-novel prizes. It’s a long book that occasionally rambles but, to my eyes, in the way that a noble beast might amble across a field. Several critics also found dramatic turns to rest upon too many contrivances—a critique I do not share. Unforgettable characters more than compensate for whatever literary graces the novel lacks. You will feel as if you know the Sawtelles and Almondine, but an especially deft touch is the manner in which Wroblewski makes secondary characters vivid. Appropriately, each dog also has a discernible and distinct personality.

I adored this book. Again, I won’t elaborate, but there’s a very subtle scene in this book that tugged on my heartstrings in a way nothing has since I saw Old Yeller as a kid. Yes, it’s that kind of book—not one for cynics, literary snobs, or those with a low tolerance for sentimentality. The rest of you can gobble this like a hungry dog in front of a fresh bag of kibble.  Rob Weir

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