four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Story of Edgar SawtelleDavid Wroblewski’s first novel tells the story of a mute boy, his family, and his cherished dogs. With overtones of Hamlet and a beautiful style, it is one of the more distinctive debuts this year.

The Story: In the woods of Wisconsin, the Sawtelle family breeds a (fictional) variety of dog. Remarkably intuitive and clever, these dogs make the perfect companions for the young, mute Edgar Sawtelle, who communicates through sign language. Life on the farm becomes complicated, however, with the arrival of Claude, Edgar’s estranged uncle. Though at first charming, Claude soon shows unmistakable signs of malice. When his brother (Edgar’s father) dies under mysterious circumstances and Claude begins to woo Edgar’s beloved mother, it becomes evident that something is rotten in the state of Wisconsin. Before the novel is over, 14-year-old Edgar will face ghosts, revenge, and the joys and sorrows of caring for man’s best friend.
Eco. 566 pages. $25.95. ISBN 0061374229

Chicago Sun Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"All this unfolds so surely and hypnotically that the reader forgets that the story is based on an old Shakespearian template. Reading it is like entering a long dream that won’t let you out until it’s ready." Kit Reed

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The great novels do this—they strip away the world—and the reader re-enters the everyday as if surfacing from a depth. … This long novel begins slowly, back in 1919, but bear with it, because Wroblewski develops a hypnotic narrative, mounting in tension as Edgar’s life ruptures and he flees with three dogs into the wilderness." Karen R. Long

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana. … The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is by no means Hamlet with hounds. This book’s brief encounters with prophecy and the supernatural have as much to do with Mr. King’s [Wisconsin] as they do with Shakespeare’s Denmark." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an enormous but effortless read, trimmed down to the elements of a captivating story about a mute boy and his dogs. … As the thriller elements of the story rise and propel it along, Wroblewski laces in signs of mysticism, sometimes a little too portentous, but usually just right." Ron Charles

Charlotte Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[O]ver-clever parallels—Look, Ma, Hamlet with dogs!—too often undermine Wroblewski’s genuine and considerable gifts. Yet it’s a measure of those gifts that I still found myself thinking: Who cares if I’m a cat lover? I want a Sawtelle dog." Dale Bailey

Critical Summary

Critics one and all seemed much taken with this classic tale from America’s heartland. The prose manages to be beautiful without blather, and the Sawtelle dogs—which even narrate the story at one point—are wonderful creations. Although most critics gave the book rave reviews, they disagreed about the novel’s homage to Shakespeare. Some felt the Hamlet parallels were overdone; others praised those parallels but argued that the mysticism of the book was a bit much. None of these problems dog the book, however, and it remains one of the most praised (and hyped) recent debuts. One caveat: those who tear up easily should make sure the Kleenex is close at hand. For as every canine owner knows, the term "dog years" can be very bittersweet indeed.