Friday, December 19, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski

This is another book that I learned about by listening to the Diane Rehm Show on the radio. The author was on for an interview and aroused my interest because Diane, David Wroblewski and I are all dog people. Wroblewski has written a novel set in an unusual dog breeding kennel which produces unusual dogs and the dogs are central to the story he tells. The founder of this kennel, the grandfather of it's central character, had the idea to breed dogs based on behavior instead of conformation. He took dogs of many, and sometimes no breed, that had performed unusual and sometimes heroic acts, dogs that got written about in the newspaper, and he created his own breed of dogs. He clearly researched both breeding methods and obedience and service dog training for the book, although the results achieved by this fictional kennel are probably not possible.

The book is written from many points of view, sometimes even that of one of the dogs, but never sinks to a level of cuteness or anthropomorphism while doing so.

The difference between us and our animal companions is one of degree and not of kind, Descartes notwithstanding.
The idea of creating these dogs that are intelligent and loyal but able to to make moral choices is a fascinating one. It gives the book a kind of Sci Fi speculative edge. What if you bred and trained dogs for intelligence and judgment? How far could you take them? What part of their behavior is learned and what effect does inheritance have? This question is played out in the dags and in the humans in this story.

This is a coming of age novel, as many first novels are. A young man, Edgar, grows up on this farm, where his parents are engaged in breeding and training these amazing dogs. Edgar is unable to speak, although he hears normally, and communicates with a half made up sign language, to everyone, including the dogs. Edgar is destined to take over the kennel and continue breeding and training these amazing dogs.

But this coming of age novel takes a wrong turn when Edgar's uncle Claude comes home after a long absence. In fact, not until Edgar's father suddenly dies and Claude starts paying unwanted attention to Edgar's mother, does the reader realize the Wroblewski is re-telling the story of Hamlet on a dog breeding farm.

Like the play, the novel ends tragically. I won't spoil it by telling you how. It is a satisfyingly thick book, a good long read, and I highly recommend it.

Note: revised 12/22/08


  1. If you want to drive your librarian crazy ask her for a copy of Jim the Wonder Dog. Perhaps you've read it. If not, and if you're interested in dogs, it's a very unusual and interesting book, written with the dog as the narrator. Supposedly based on a true story of a dog that lived near Marshall, Missouri.

  2. I was referred to your blog by Maw Books Blog and her "carnival" that she is having over there. I was compelled to leave you a note and let you know that this was one of my favorite books read this year. I was so moved that it almost haunted me for a few days after I had finished. It also gave me "dog sadness"...a term I use when I miss my deceased lab, Meggie (and when I enter into a conversation with husband about getting another one!). Great post!

  3. I keep reading about this book; glad to know that it's a retelling of Hamlet and ends tragically. That helps me know when to read it.

  4. Jeanne, by the time you reach the big denouement you are prepared for it. It's Edgar's father's demise that was a bit of a shock.

    Sandy, I know just what you mean by "dog sadness."

    Michelle, Jim the Wonder Dog? I'm tempted to ask for it just to see the look on my librarian's face.


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