Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

I had no idea what this would be about when I got it. I thought it would be about a photographer in the 1800s who specialized in photographs of Native Americans. I don't know why I thought the name was Sawtelle- I think the name I really meant was Curtis. In any case, I thought this would be an account of this photographer, nonfiction.

Not so. It is a lengthy first novel, finely crafted, about a boy and his family in northern Wisconsin. I may have missed references to the time frame. My guess is it takes place in the 1950s or 1960s, maybe 1970s.

Edgar Sawtelle was born without a voice. He could hear but could not speak. Doctors could not determine the cause or a solution, so he learned sign language. Over time, he modified sign language to include his own idiosyncratic signs, which his mother and father, Trudy and Gar, learned easily.  The family business is the breeding of dogs - a special breed - "Sawtelle dogs". When Edgar's grandfather began breeding, he did not care about pedigree. Instead, when he saw a dog with characteristics that he found special, he would acquire the dog to breed with his stock. He did this over the years, hoping to impart special qualities to his dogs.

Another aspect that set the dogs apart from traditional breeders is that the Sawtelles realized that too many dogs are "ruined" by incapable owners in their first year. So they did an unusual thing: they did not sell puppies. Instead, they sold fully trained young dogs, trained to their exacting specifications.

Edgar loves the dogs and loves working with him. One special dog, Almondine, was there when Edgar was born and became almost his other half. They did everything together.

The small family is doing reasonably well when Gar's brother Claude shows up out of the blue. He had been in prison and Gar lets him stay for a while. The two have conflicts, however, and in time Claude is invited to leave. He moves into the small town nearby and does odd jobs.

Then Edgar and Trudy's lives are turned upside down. Edgar is there when his father has some kind of seizure and falls to the floor. Edgar is unable to use the telephone, although he tries. He even damages it in the process of trying to make himself heard. Gar dies before anyone can get to him.

Trudy and Edgar are then in a precarious position. It is difficult to manage the home and business between the two of them, and harder still when Trudy becomes very ill and has to stay in bed. During this time Claude offers some help, and gradually works his way into the family. Edgar, however, never accepts him. In fact, after a time he has a memory of seeing something that makes him wonder about Claude. It is here when the story takes on more than a hint of Hamlet. Complete with ghosts.

When there is another accident and the vet dies in their barn, Edgar takes off with three of the dogs. He manages to make his way through the northwoods without being spotted, existing on very little at first but eventually finding a way to feed both himself and the dogs. It is then that the small group has an emergency that results in their meeting Henry, a lone man who lives in a remote cabin, and a tentative friendship develops.

And finally, a dramatic finish worthy of Hamlet, very suspenseful in the last pages.

The story caught my attention but I never fully embraced Edgar. I know that part of my difficulty is with the breeding. I am very opposed to the breeding of dogs. Any breeder has to destroy animals that do not come out right. There are many missteps in deliberate genetic manipulations. It's not simple science. I am also disturbed by the belief that purebred dogs are superior to "mutts". I have never known this to be true in real life. But that's, of course, for another dissertation. The point here is that this large aspect of the story disturbed me. It was hard for me to ignore it, to separate my personal ethics from the story.

The training was another aspect that at times made me suspicious. The author consulted training books ad infinitem and I am sure that much of what he writes is what many trainers do. I just did not like all that I read. But I feel that this is an area of evolving practice, and here in 2012 I learn about types of training that probably did not exist at the time of this novel. What is clear is that the dogs matter to the family, that they are special, that they are loved.

I was enough attached to Edgar to want better for him, to want his suspicions to be verified to others. I wanted more than a tragic ending, frankly, after getting to know him and his dogs for so many pages.

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