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Onyx reviews: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

After ten years of labor, David Wroblewski has produced a first novel destined to be an American classic. Defying the current trend for literary brevity, Wroblewski takes his time and uses a plentiful palette of colors. Weighing in at over 550 pages, the book is leisurely, lavish and detailed. It could be described as a tale of a boy and his dogs, but it is much more than that. It's a coming of age tale or, more accurately, a coming into wisdom tale, with elements of magical realism.

Edgar Sawtelle's grandfather had a theory about dog breeding that ran counter to everything the experts believed, a holistic approach to creating dogs with favorable traits. After John Sawtelle died, the business passed to his two sons. Gar embraced it; Claude escaped the family farm as soon as he could, first to Vietnam and later to prison for some unspecified crime.

The genealogy of every dog the Sawtelles place is fully charted back at least five generations. Their files are living documents, updated with reports from the dogs' owners throughout their lives. Each dog has a story that dictates the potential benefits and risks of specific breeding combinations.

Wroblewski's book, then, is the "story" of Gar and Trudy's son Edgar, born mute for no obvious reason, after Trudy suffered several miscarriages. He learns to communicate with his parents and with the Sawtelle dogs though an improvised sign language. His disability is rarely a liability. 

One of Edgar's jobs is to bestow names on the new pups, a task he takes very seriously. He studies the dictionary assiduously until he finds names appropriate to each individual animal's traits. Dogs end up called Essay, Tinder, and Baboo.

Edgar identifies with Mowgli, the character from The Jungle Book who can walk and talk with the animals. He has a special touch with the dogs as he puts them through their paces day in and out, training them skills like stay, down, release, and away. Because of his limitations, Edgar must make constant eye contact with his charges. This lends him a degree of intimacy most trainers never achieve. It helps that the Sawtelle dogs have above-average intuition that borders on extra-sensory perception. The dogs seem to understand what Edgar wants of them, and they come to tacit agreements rather than following instructions.

The first section of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is reminiscent of an old-time Western novel, like Shane. Early 1960s Wisconsin is a world away from contemporary time. Telephones had party lines, television was in black and white, and the Sawtelles rarely ventured far from the farm, and never for more than a few hours. Edgar's only constant companion is Almondine, a Sawtelle dog with him from birth.

Once chapters start being told from the point of view of the dogs, the nature of the book changes subtly. Subtle supernatural elements tinge the story, as in a James Lee Burke novel. Ghosts from the past communicate with the living, and an oddball psychic who runs the general store with a stern hand dispenses mystical prophecies. The ghosts are straight out of Hamlet, a play that Wroblewski twists it to his own purposes. Lest there be any doubt about the author's inspiration, compare the characters' names: Trudy (Queen Gertrude), Claude (Claudius), and Doctor Papineau (Polonius). 

Anyone familiar with the Shakespearean play might guess what befalls the Sawtelle family. Claude, the black sheep of the family, insinuates himself into their lives, and only Edgar can see through his guise. The dreadful results of Claude's machinations sends Edgar fleeing into the Wisconsin national forest, except instead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he is accompanied by three of his young brood of dogs, one obedient, one rebellious and one who is neither—or both. This part of the book might be compared to The Incredible Journey. Edgar and the dogs scavenge for food and befriend a lonely man who has been damned by his ex-fiancÚ as "ordinary."

The ending might take a rereading or two to ascertain exactly what transpires. By the time readers reach that point in the book, they will be so invested in the Sawtelle family and their dogs that the impact of the final few chapters will resonate long after the book is closed.

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