Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski




(Highly Recommended)




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David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, packs a wallop. I can’t recall another debut novel that rated a four-star recommendation. I was reminded of Jane Smiley’s Moo, a version of King Lear set in Iowa. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle might be considered a version of Hamlet set in Wisconsin with dogs. The Sawtelle family has specialized in breeding and training dogs. Edgar is born mute and highly intelligent. The novel is his story with the dogs and with his family. It is the quintessential tragedy. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of the chapter titled, “The Stray,” pp. 88-90:


He spent the evening in the barn, Almondine close by, grooming dogs until his hands ached. Claude approached him once, but Edgar turned away. The sun had set and the stars were coming into sight overhead when the truck pulled into the driveway.

The carcass of the deer hung by one back leg from a low branch of the maple tree. His father was asking questions even before he was out of the cab. Claude walked over to meet them. Forte had finally downed a deer, he said. He'd watched it from the barn roof, but by the time he'd gotten the rifle the deer was down and the stray was working on it, and he'd fired a shot to scare it off.

"The doe was still alive but tore up pretty bad. No choice but to shoot it I didn't want to leave it, so I dressed it out and took off the one leg he'd chewed up and brought it back here," he said.

The lie didn't surprise Edgar, but what Claude said next did. He ex­pected Claude to return to the old argument, insist they bait Forte and shoot him, or poison him. And this time it was an argument he would probably win. Instead, he suggested they forget Forte.

"As far as that dog goes," Claude said, "I don't think I hit it, but I know I scared the hell out of it. Took off so fast I never had time to take a second shot. We're never going to see it again."

He looked at Edgar as he spoke, and at first Edgar didn't understand. His mother caught Claude's gaze and turned to look at him. "Where were you during all this?" she asked.

Lit by the porch light, flies penciled their shadows against the carcass of the deer. Edgar's father turned to face him as well. Claude stood be­hind and between them, and the resolute expression on his face lifted. The corners of his mouth edged up into a smile.

Claude was presenting Edgar with a choice. He saw that. All his talk of scaring off Forte had just been making the terms of the deal clear. He was offering to forget the stray, let him come or go. The price was silence. Edgar looked at the carcass of the deer and then at his parents.

I was asleep in the living room, he signed. I missed everything.

If he and Claude had struck a pact that night, it remained a silent one. Claude never again suggested they try to find or kill Forte and Edgar never told his father the truth about the deer. When he could be surreptitious about it, Edgar filled the steel dish with kibble and set it behind the garden. It was empty by morning, though whether licked clean by Forte or plundered by the squirrels he couldn't tell.

One evening, as Edgar was crossing the lawn, in that dilated moment after sunset when the sky holds all the light, he saw Forte watching from the far side of the garden and he stopped, hoping the dog would finally trot into the yard. Instead, he edged back. Edgar returned to the barn. He filled the steel dish with kibble and walked up the carefully weeded rows of sweet peas and corn and musk melon until he stood a single pace away. Even then the dog would not come forward. It was Edgar who took the final step, out of the garden and into the wild grass growing at the tree line. There, Forte ate the kibble from Edgar's hand, trembling. Afterward, he let Edgar lay a hand on his shoulder. Thus began a ritual that would last all that summer and into the fall. A week might pass before the stray appeared again. Edgar would carry food out and the dog would eat while Edgar worked burrs from his coat. Always, before Edgar had finished, Forte would begin to pant and then he would turn and walk away and bed down at the forest's edge, where the lights of the house glittered in his eyes. And if Edgar came closer then, the dog would rise and wheel and trot into the woods without pausing to look back or making a sound.


Wroblewski’s first novel is so good that expectations for another will be high. Whether he writes another or not, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a fine accomplishment and among the best novels of 2008.


Steve Hopkins, August 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the Seeptember 2008 issue of Executive Times


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