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Review: 'Story of Edgar Sawtelle' a tragedy of canine proportions

The bond between dogs and their humans is powerful, as anybody who lives with one can tell you.

These relationships are so complex that sometimes it's hard to tell which is pet and which is master. Our dogs worship us, they empathize with us, they boss us around and in hard times they console us — unless we're imposing our all-too-humanistic sense of things on creatures who are altogether different.

Whether or not they think the way we do, dogs are good at expressing themselves. Their body language is rich and intricate. David Wroblewski captures all this and more in his amazing first novel about a tortured family and its extraordinary dogs. Nobody is better at drawing the loving tug of wills — or the ways in which dogs tell us what they are thinking.

It's hard to imagine being swept away by a story in which the central characters can't speak, but this swift, passionate novel with its stark rural setting reads like Gone With the Wind. This is storytelling at its best.

There are, of course, humans who do speak, a problem for the central character. Unlike the dogs who surround young Edgar Sawtelle, who was born mute, the humans are by no means all good.

Instead of raising crops, his parents, Gar and Trudy Sawtelle, devote their lives to breeding and training dogs on a Wisconsin farm in the early 1970s.

Part shepherd, perhaps part wolf, the Sawtelles' animals are noble, handsome and sturdy, meticulously trained. The family's only son, Edgar, however, is born flawed. He hears perfectly but can't speak because, a mystic tells him deep in the story, "before you were born, God told you a secret he didn't want anyone else to know."

Even Edgar doesn't know it. What he does know is that he loves his parents and he loves the puppy they brought into the house before he was born. Almondine knew he was coming: "Sometimes, after she'd searched and failed to find the thing that was going to happen, she stood beside Edgar's mother or father and waited for them to call it out."

Boy and dog grow up together, and if the dog ages faster than the child — well, only a grieving human can tell you what that's like.

Late in the novel, in a passage strong enough to move even the toughest, most cynical readers to tears, Almondine will go looking for Edgar again. This book knows how to do that to a person.

Mute Edgar is by no means mindless. Full of questions, he talks with his hands. Using signs and gestures, he's intelligent and voluble. The signals make him better than most at communicating with the dogs he trains, who respond beautifully to the body language he develops.

A letter to Edgar's grandfather best expresses the Sawtelle philosophy: "There are limits to what even the most rigorously scientific breeding program can accomplish — based not only on the foundation stock and the limits of precision we have for measuring the dogs, but on limits that come from within us — limits, in other words, of our own imagination, and of ourselves as conscientious human beings. In the end, to create better dogs, we will have to become better people."

Enter Gar's evil, estranged brother, Clyde.

Before the brothers' power struggle is finished, Gar will die, leaving Trudy desolate and Edgar angry and suspicious. All this unfolds so surely and hypnotically that the reader forgets that Wroblewski's story is based on an old Shakespearean template.

Reading it is like entering a long dream that won't let you out until it's ready. Expect storms, expect a ghost and mysterious events, a riveting trip into the wild with Edgar and three dogs; expect losses and, like Edgar, go where this wonderful novel takes you.

Kit Reed's most recent novel is "The Baby Merchant." Her new novel, "Enclave," comes out in February.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

By David Wroblewski

Ecco/HarperCollins, 576 pages, $26.95

Review: 'Story of Edgar Sawtelle' a tragedy of canine proportions 08/02/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 9:16am]
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