Several years ago, I read a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing book about a boy and his dogs. I have recommended it to friends, loaned it to my fiancé’s son and give it a place of honor on my book shelf. The fact that Oprah chose it for one of her book club recommendations didn’t stir me to buy it; in fact, I didn’t even know Oprah had chosen it for her book club until I began writing this blog post. But since today, August 26, is “National Dog Day,” I thought it would be a good time to revisit The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski’s debut novel, was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller. (Thank you Oprah!) And for good reason. It’s a wonderful tale. To date, it’s the only book Wroblewski has published.
Trudy and Gar Sawtelle live in Wisconsin. They have developed and sell to approved buyers a very special breed of dog, a type of dog very nearly human in terms of communication ability. After a series of miscarriages, Trudy gives birth to Edgar.
“This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.”
Born mute, Edgar nevertheless communicates with great effectiveness with his parents and with the dogs, particularly one named Almondine. And in the Sawtelles’ world, all is well until Gar’s brother, Claude, comes to stay on the farm.
If this sounds a bit Shakespearean to you, you are correct. Wroblewski borrows gently from Hamlet as you may have
noticed. Gertrude, Claudius, etc. And Speaking of HAMLET! What I wouldn’t give to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He premiered in London’s West End last night. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/aug/25/hamlet-barbican-review-benedict-cumberbatch-imprisoned-prince
But I digress. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle succeeds in – much as a great production of Hamlet, as the New York Times said,”exert(ing) a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/books/13book.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
The exposition I most love about this book is the times the author translates what the dogs are feeling. At times, it is truly heart-breaking.
To her, the scent and the memory of him were one. Where it lay strongest, the distant past came to her as if that morning: Taking a dead sparrow from her jaws, before she knew to hide such things. Guiding her to the floor, bending her knee until the arthritis made it stick, his palm hotsided on her ribs to measure her breaths and know where the pain began. And to comfort her. That had been the week before he went away.
He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep. She stood then and nosed into the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom-especially the closet-her intention to press her ruff against his hand, run it along his thigh, feel the heat of his body through the fabric.
Places, times, weather-all these drew him up inside her. Rain, especially, falling past the double doors of the kennel, where he’d waited through so many storms, each drop throwing a dozen replicas into the air as it struck the waterlogged earth. And where the rising and falling water met, something like an expectation formed, a place where he might appear and pass in long strides, silent and gestureless. 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. And if not constancy, then only those changes she desired, not those that sapped her, undefined her.
And so she searched. She’d watched his casket lowered into the ground, a box, man-made, no more like him than the trees that swayed under the winter wind. To assign him an identity outside the world was not in her thinking. The fence line where he walked and the bed where he slept-that was where he lived, and they remembered him.
“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say that this place, right here, is heaven, hell and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes […] Half the time we walk around in love with the idea of a thing instead of the reality of it. But sometimes things don’t turn out that way. You have to pay attention to what’s real, what’s in the world. Not some imaginary alternative, as if it’s a choice we could make.”