The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Fiction, hardcover 562 pgs.
Bond Street Books
This is in many ways a "boy and his dog story" but I don't think anyone has plumbed these emotional depths of dogs in their relationship to humans in a novel. In doing so of course, he has also shown us aspects of human nature we don't see articulated every day either. Wroblewski writing is very good.
A young couple carries on the family business of dog breeding and training in the Wisconsin countryside. Afters years of difficulty Gar and Judy Sawtelle have a beloved baby boy who's perfect but mute. With no medical explanation they resign themselves to teaching him sign language. Edgar is as serious about the dog business as father and grandfather before him. He enjoys perusing old breeding records and his grandfather's letters about the business. At fourteen he is finally allowed to train the puppies, which he does with hand signals, and he's thrilled. But his father's brother arrives suddenly after years away from the family business and there is an ongoing tension between his father Gar and his uncle Claude that Edgar doesn't like or understand. Tragedy follows and Edgar is the only one who figures out who was responsible. In his frustration of trying to make his mother understand him, Edgar accidently causes a death and decides to run away until things blow over. He spends some weeks wandering with three of his favourite dogs while avoiding people, though he does take up for a while with a man willing to ask no questions of a mute runaway. His loneliness eventually drives him to return home where conflict is inevitable. A killer has to be faced down.
The tension is palpable at this point in the story and the writer knows how to ratchet it up a few notches. Confrontation ensues, first with an old family friend who has suspicions about what's going on. Then with his uncle Claude who has figured out that Edgar knows he's responsible for his father's death and is desperate to hide the evidence. Edgar's emotional state is well laid out for us from the beginning, through his actions and his often furious signing. The author is good at making us feel the boy's frustration when he is not understood or taken serious by adults. But the resolution will still take you by surprise. This is not simply a 'coming of age' story or a suspense either. This is adult fiction with a powerful emotional impact. As novels go today, it's one of a kind and you won't want to miss it. Four and a half stars out of five.
* If you're like me and don't like to know too much about a story before you read it, avoid reading detailed reviews and don't even read the blurbs on the cover. I call them "blabs" and have trained myself not to read them. Some of them give away too much for my liking.
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