For a first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has already met with great success, rising high on bestseller lists and garnering critical acclaim. In this long, dense and gothic-tinged work, 10 years in the making, author David Wroblewski constructs a Hamletinspired story, with a soupçon of Stephen King thrown in for good measure. The cast of characters— including the mother, Trudy (Gertrude); the uncle, Claude (who, yes, marries his sister-in-law); and the vet, Papineau, a Polonius stand-in—is taken from the bard’s playbook.
The hero, however, is Edgar Sawtelle, a mute and mysterious boy.At the beginning of the book, he, his parents Gar and Trudy, and the lovely Almondine (his cherished companion and a dog who has been with the family since before Edgar’s birth) are living an idyllic life on a farm in northern Wisconsin. But true to the Hamlet trajectory, the story quickly darkens with Gar’s sudden death.
The family’s livelihood comes from the breeding and raising of “Sawtelle” dogs—not a breed, but an idealized über mix. Dogs Edgar’s grandfather, and then his father, found to be noble, honorable or emblematic of an essential, almost indefinable, quality were the progenitors of this new canine phenotype, one “excellent in temperament and structure but of unpedigreed stock.”Much detail about their (and to this reader, problematic) breeding operation is revealed when, at the behest of a familial ghost, Edgar investigates what he believes is his father’s murder, and looks through his grandfather’s voluminous breeding records and correspondences for clues to the crime.
An intriguing part of this endeavor is that in order to be sure the breeding program is achieving its desired outcome, the behavioral and temperamental aspects of each offspring are closely monitored. The dogs are raised by the Sawtelle family until they are two years old, and undergo a rigorous training program,with Trudy as the master trainer. She teaches her techniques (which, unfortunately, seem to be modeled on the Koehler approach) to young Edgar; even though he is mute, he is able to communicate well through hand signals and body movements. In yet another borrowing from Hamlet, Edgar schools his dogs in an elaborate relay game involving what he suspects is the murder weapon (a syringe) in order to “catch the conscience” of his uncle.
It is in the last third of the book, in the section titled “Chequamegon,” where Wroblewski’s storytelling talent really shines, rising above the turgidity of the gothic. After an incident a la Polonius, Edgar runs away from home,taking three dogs (the first litter for which he is solely responsible) with him. The little pack makes a dangerous journey through northern lakes and woods country. This turns out to be more like an ancient truth quest, where young men—and in this case, young dogs as well—test their mettle and resolve to make the leap into adulthood. True canine heirs to the Sawtelle name, the dogs are Edgar’s equal partners, mastering survival skills and expressing their own clear choices.
There is much to admire about this book. While I have reservations about the supernatural elements and the degree to which the Hamlet metaphor is employed, as well as being troubled about parts of the plot (especially those related to dog-rearing), nonetheless, Wroblewski possesses a daring and adventurous talent, and I look forward to seeing the heights he scales next.