August 28, 2010
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
2008 Recorded Books, LLC; Unabridged CD edition
Reader: Richard Poe
Finished on 7/14/10
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm—and into Edgar's mother's affections.
Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires—spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.
David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes—the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain—create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.
I loved this book! I loved it so much that after listening to the audio, I was compelled to buy a copy for future readings. The writing is beyond lyrical; it's exquisite! The characters (human and canine) touched my heart, and Edgar and Almondine have joined the ranks of all-time favorite characters, keeping company with Scout, Owen, Leisel & Rudy, and Perry. I actually found myself thinking of Owen Meany a lot during this book; probably due to the manner in which he speaks...and the manner in which Edgar is unable to do so.
I found myself completely absorbed in the story, sitting in my parked car (both in my driveway or the parking lot at work) long after my car engine had cooled, unable to pull myself away from the narrative. The pacing is even, the suspense and foreshadowing perfectly tuned. Richard Poe is an exceptional reader and his performance of this heartfelt coming-of-age novel is to be applauded.
On man's (or boy's) best friend:
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.
The nose quivers. The velvet snout dimples.
All the house is quiet. Be still. Stay still.
Fine, dark muzzle fur. Black nose, leather of lacework creases, comma of nostrils flexing with each breath. A breeze shushes up the field and pillows the curtains inward. The apple tree near the kitchen window caresses the house with a tick-tickety-tick-tick. As slowly as he can, he exhales, feigning sleep, but despite himself his breath hitches. At once, the muzzle knows he is awake. It snorts. Angles right and left. Withdraws. Outside the crib, Almondine's forequarters appear. Her head is reared back, her ears cocked forward.
A cherry-brindled eye peers back at him.
Whoosh of her tail.
Be still. Stay still.
The muzzle comes hunting again, tunnels beneath his blanket, below the farmers and pigs and chicks and cows dyed into that cotton world. His hand rises on fingers and spider-walks across the surprised farmyard residents to challenge the intruder. It becomes a bird, hovering before their eyes. Thumb and index finger squeeze the crinkled black nose. The pink of her tongue darts out but the bird flies away before Almondine can lick it. Her tail is switching harder now. Her body sways, her breath envelops him. He tugs the blackest whisker on her chin and this time her tongue catches the palm of his hand ever so slightly. He pitches to his side, rubs his hand across the blanket, blows a breath in her face. Her ears flick back. She stomps a foot. He blows again and she withdraws and bows and woofs, low in her chest, quiet and deep, the boom of an uncontainable heartbeat. Hearing it, he forgets and presses his face against the rails to see her, all of her, take her inside him with his eyes, and before he can move, she smears her tongue across his nose and forehead! He claps a hand to his face but it's too late—she's away, spinning, biting her tail, dancing in the moted sunlight that spills through the window glass.
Wandering through the kennel, holding a book: Winnie-the-Pooh. He opens a whelping pen, sits. The puppies surge through the underbrush of loose straw, kicking up fine white dust as they come along. He captures them between his legs and reads to them, hands in motion before their upturned muzzles. The mother comes over and they peep like chicks when they see her. One by one she carries them back to the whelping box; they hang black and bean-shaped from her mouth. When she has finished, she stands over them, looking at Edgar in reproach.
They wanted to hear, he signs at her, but the mother won't settle with her pups until he leaves.
Winnie-the-Pooh is a good story for puppies. If only she would let him tell it.
I'm not sure what I expected when I first picked up this debut novel, but I was more than pleasantly surprised by Wroblewski's beautiful prose:
Inside was a calamity of plywood and mossy bedsprings and vast spider webs hanging like spinnakers between the timbers.
On trained dogs:
And the dogs, in turn, discovered that if they waited after he'd asked them to stay and disappeared into a cabin, he would always return. Together they practiced new skills he devised. They had long understood what was being asked of them during a stay, whether in the training in the yard or in town; now he asked if they would stay in a forest glade when they were hungry and the flickers pounded the ground, thumping up millipedes, or squirrels harassed them, or a rock sailed over their heads and rattled the dead leaves. Several times each day he found a likely spot shielded by sumac or bracken fern, and he placed them in guard over something small—a stick he'd been carrying that morning, say, or a bit of rag. Then he walked off into the forest, careful not to push them past the breaking point since he had no way to correct them. Later, he tied a length of fishing line to the guarded thing and asked them to move only when it moved, keeping it surrounded. When they got that right, he'd sail back into their midst signing, release! and throw himself at them to roll and tickle, toss the thing for them to catch, see to each of them in whatever way he'd learned was the greatest delight for that dog.
He learned, too, the limits of their patience, different for each of them. In a stay, Baboo was as immovable as the hills, and likely to fall asleep. Essay, ever alert, was the most tempted of any of them by the skitter of a rock pitched through the ferns. And Tinder, equally likely to stick or bolt, who twice jumped up when Essay broke her stay and licked her muzzle and coaxed her back into a sit.
I've yet to read Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller, but recently I've become drawn to novels about dogs. I loved Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and now The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has found its way into my heart. Looks like I'm in good company, too:
Praise from Stephen King:
I flat-out loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and spent twelve happy evenings immersed in the world David Wroblewski has created. As I neared the end, I kept finding excuses to put the book aside for a little, not because I didn't like it, but because I liked it too much; I didn't want it to end. Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance. Yet in the end, this isn't a novel about dogs or heartland America--although it is a deeply American work of literature. It's a novel about the human heart, and the mysteries that live there, understood but impossible to articulate. Yet in the person of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute boy who takes three of his dogs on a brave and dangerous odyssey, Wroblewski does articulate them, and splendidly. I closed the book with that regret readers feel only after experiencing the best stories: It's over, you think, and I won't read another one this good for a long, long time.
In truth, there's never been a book quite like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I thought of Hamlet when I was reading it, and Watership Down, and The Night of the Hunter, and The Life of Pi--but halfway through, I put all comparisons aside and let it just be itself.
I'm pretty sure this book is going to be a bestseller, but unlike some, it deserves to be. It's also going to be the subject of a great many reading groups, and when the members take up Edgar, I think they will be apt to stick to the book and forget the neighborhood gossip.
Wonderful, mysterious, long and satisfying: readers who pick up this novel are going to enter a richer world. I envy them the trip. I don't re-read many books, because life is too short. I will be re-reading this one.
Final thoughts: Do not be put off by the size of this book. You will not want it to end!
Did I say I loved it?!
Be sure to visit Wroblewski's website, particularly his tangent page. He's included some wonderful video clips!