The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – David Wroblewski

David Wroblewski carried around this story for years. A computer science major, he went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers so that he could tell this story in the way it deserved to be told. Originally from Wisconsin, he now makes his home in Colorado. Edgar Sawtelle is his debut novel and has been awarded with such distinctions as the 2008 Colorado Book Award and an Oprah Book Club pick while he himself was an Indie Choice Best Author Discovery.

Edgar Sawtelle takes place in rural Wisconsin near and in the Chequamegon National Forest. Edgar Sawtelle is born mute, learning to speak in a sign language that is half his own invention. He lives a wonderful life with his mother and father, helping raise and train a fictional breed of dog that respond as well to his signing as to verbal commands, until his uncle comes to live with them and his father suffers a tragic accident. Edgar is convinced that his uncle had something to do with it, but his plan to prove it backfires and Edgar flees to the Chequamegon, followed by three Sawtelle dogs. Here he learns not only how to survive but what makes a Sawtelle dog so special.

My deepest regret after finishing this book is not having read it sooner. I’d not heard of it before the Publishing Institute in July (where I was not only fortunate enough to hear about the book, I was able to attend an author visit at the Tattered Cover on 16th Street), so I think it’s one of those quietly famous books (though having a blurb from Stephen King on the back of your book certainly can’t hurt things). However, I do believe that books come to us at particular moments in our lives, even if their meaning to us waits for another moment. Reading Edgar Sawtelle even one year ago, though it still would have been powerful, wouldn’t have had the same impact as now.

Though the book moves around the Sawtelle dogs, the heart of the story is so much more. The dogs are an integral part of those workings, and through his interactions with them does Edgar transform from boy to man. In one sense, it’s a coming of age story, seen, filtered, and augmented by the dogs’ visions of events. Each dog becomes a character in its own right, capturing and holding the reader’s attention and affection. (My favorite is Essay, because she reminds me of one of the dogs in my life, though I have a deep fondness for all of them. Who’s yours?)

Wroblewski deftly weaves his narration, casting a spell that only grows stronger with each page turned. I found myself thinking that the world when I was required to put the book down felt somewhat less vibrant than the one in my hands. I felt that I knew all of the characters, I could feel and understand their motivations, and I envied them their dogs. I could see, with crystal clarity, each setting in the book. I could hear voices (in the good way) and feel emotions. Like Shine,  this book grabs you. But it’s more in the way you can’t help but listen to a supremely gifted storyteller, which is, after all, what Wroblewski has shown himself to be.

Readers who are familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet will find themselves drawing parallels between characters and events. It is not and should not be taken for a modern retelling of the story. To do that would detract value from Edgar Sawtelle, for there is more to the story than revenge. So, dear reader, you may keep Hamlet and his story in the back of your mind, but do not impose anything from it onto Edgar. Allow him to tell his own story. Anyway, it’s not a direct match, so you will be disappointed if you try. If you haven’t read Hamlet, don’t worry. You’ll be in fine shape.

My recommendation: drop your current reading list and put this book at the top. Buy it.


Ecco Books, Sept. 2008, hardcover, 566 pages. Buy the book here.

et cetera