The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – by David Wroblewski

A 2008 bestseller, this 562 page novel tells an odd but entertaining story. It takes place in rural Wisconsin and starts around 1920. Edgar is the only child of a family of dog breeders and trainers, going back three generations.

I won’t tell you the story here, since it’s a nice read and you will keep the pages turning. But it’s a very different story, an unlikely story, and it amused me that I was so interested in it.

I am not a dog person at all. I never had a dog, I don’t understand dogs, I have no relationships with any dogs and I avoid dogs. Yet in this book I learned an immense amount about dogs, their breeding, birth, training, intelligence, behavior, how they are born, how they care for their young. Dogs are central to the story.

The narration shifts between the characters. We get to see the world, and various situations, from the perspectives of the different characters. We also get to see the world from the perspective of several dogs. The author clearly understands dogs well, because he does a great job making thought processes of dogs credible and plausible. When he tells from the dog’s perspective, two things happen: First you really see the world through the eyes of the dog, but second, and much more importantly, you like the way that feels and you want to be a dog.

Oskar, the protagonist in Die Blechtrommel (the Tin Drum) by Günther Grass, is a dwarf. I remember reading the book and wondering why Grass chose such a complicated protagonist. The story would have worked the same way if Oskar had been a tall person. It’s as if Grass needed to challenge himself.

Likewise, Edgar is mute. Not deaf-mute. His hearing is fine, but he simply cannot talk. Edgar writes notes to strangers, and his family can read his sign language. Of course, he signs to the dogs. This adds to the plot once or twice, but I don’t see it as critical. Wroblewski seems to have just wanted to create a more complex character, and he certainly succeeded.

You also have to pay attention, as there are details in the plot line that are easily missed. There are hallucinations or apparitions, and they add to the plot. We believe that Edgar has this gift of seeing ghosts, another special quality that only he and the dogs share. There is, therefore, an implied assumption that dogs see ghosts.

Large stretches of the book are about a mute boy and his interactions with dogs. How can that be interesting? Trust me, it is. You will keep the pages turning, and afterwards you will never quite see dogs with the same eyes again.

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