The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

I've learned to avoid reading the back cover and inside jacket before I've finished the book because they often give away too much of the story. Sure enough, the back cover of this book has a blurb containing a spoiler, but avoiding it didn't help me since it only took me a few chapters to recognise the classic that this story is based on. Knowing what was going to happen made me put down the book often, in spite of the excellent writing. I just didn't feel that I had the emotional stamina to take the tragedies that I knew were coming.

At one point, having been away from it for several weeks, I thought I could safely label it a did-not-finish. It looked innocent enough lying there on my bedside table, though, and eventually the beautiful prose lured me back into the story and I did finally finish it.

Edgar is the much-wanted son of Gar and Trudy, who breed and train dogs, carrying on the work of Gar's father. The dogs have come to be known simply as Sawtelle dogs and are carefully placed with people who will respect and continue the training instilled by the Sawtelles. Edgar is born deaf but learns to sign with his parents, often with signs he's adapted or made up. His companion is Almondine, a Sawtelle dog who sleeps, plays and eats with Edgar, teaching him as she teaches the puppies how to behave. As he gets older, Edgar's job is to name the new puppies, a job he takes very seriously, perusing the dictionary and matching the name to the personality. Then he begins to help with the training.

It is the training portions that fascinated me, the descriptions of the tasks they put the dogs through, and of the bond that develops between human and canine. Gar's father had an extensive correspondence with another expert who did not believe that dogs could be bred for qualities of character rather than color of coat or shape of ear yet the Sawtelle methods have clearly been successful. Gar carries on his father's meticulous breeding records.

Wroblewski's prose is arrestingly lovely even in its plainness. He says of Edgar's mother: “Working with the dogs, Trudy was at her most charismatic and imperious. Edgar had seen her cross the mow at a dead run, grab the collar of a dog who refused to down, and bring it to the floor, all in a single balletic arc. Even the dog had been impressed: it capered and spun and licked her face as though she had performed a miracle on its behalf.”

He also captures Edgar's mindset at each age, from early childhood into his teens, affected by his isolated life on the farm in northern Wisconsin. Describing the day Edgar and his father discover a stray, Wroblewski says that Edgar stops “near the narrow grove of trees that projected into the south field atop the hill. A granite ledge swelled from the ground there, gray and narrow and barnacled with moss, cresting among the trees and submerging near the road like the hump of a whale breaking the surface of the earth. As his father walked along, Edgar stepped into the wild mustard and Johnson grass and waited to see if the ground might ripple and seal over as the thing passed. Instead, a shadow floated into view at the ledge's far end. Then the shadow became a dog, nose lowered to the mossy back of the leviathan as though scenting an old trail. When the dog reached the crest of the rock, it looked up, forepaw alert, and froze.”

There is much in this book about domestication and the wild, compromise and danger. I'm glad I read on. By the time I reached the end, I was ready for it. And I would not for anything have missed the man Edgar meets on his travels.

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