Wednesday, February 09, 2011

My Thoughts: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Mr. Wroblewski is a significantly talented writer. His descriptions of animals, the Wisconsin countryside, and people are magnificent. One can get lost in them.

I loved this novel for its ability to bring the reader close to the characters and the dogs. We are there in their world and touching them.

When Edgar runs off with three pups to the forest, intensity builds. The reader cannot turn away.


This novel seems to waver and undulate. The reader weaves and turns. Grasps and then must let go.

Character development seems uneven. Who is Claude and from whence comes his propensity for murder? Why is his brother, Gar, such a different person? A three-page conversation over a game of canasta may give some clues… if the reader can manage to wade through its painful verisimilitude.

Edgar also seems a different person at times. He has tremendously wise and complex thoughts for someone in his early teen years. His love for his pups and for Almondine bespeaks a tender personality. His wisdom and care for the dogs when he sets off into the wilderness suggest a person mature beyond his years. So, when Claude offers to teach him to drive his maniacal behavior behind the wheel is most puzzling. One could attribute such behavior to his hatred of his uncle and the recent loss of his father, but still, it is not in keeping with the character we find in other parts of the novel.

When Edgar runs off with three pups to the forest, the novel builds to its climax. We hope he and the pups survive. He learns what training really means. He understands the importance of the Sawtelle breed. He can carry it on, confident in himself and his knowledge.

When he needs help for his injured pup, he knocks on a random farmhouse door. The man who answers, Henry, could be a dangerous man, and the author deftly paints such suggestions. But, luckily for Edgar, Henry turns out to be extremely kind and "trustworthy" and helps him. Most touchingly, he comes to truly love Edgar and his dogs. The chapters about Henry and Edgar are some of the book's most enjoyable ones to read.

Upon his return home, however, Edgar loses all. He pulls his grandfather's and father's files from the barn/kennel as it bursts into flames, having understood that documenting each litter means everything for the survival of his family's unique breed.

But he himself does not survive the ordeal. His uncle, who killed his father with a potion obtained during his tour of duty in Korea, uses the same poison on Edgar.

He dies and is reunited with his father and beloved dog, Almondine, who was his friend, nursemaid, and protector. These moments of connection surely bring a reader to tears.

Still, I am so troubled by the fact that he survives the ordeal in the forest, feeding himself and the pups with stolen Twinkies and Spaghetti-O's. These events are so tangible, so contemporary, so full of promise of survival, making the later events all the more implausible.

And during this ordeal, Edgar reaches an epiphany about the future, a realization that could move the breeding program forward.

But then he is killed and his mother, we suppose, never knows why or how. Does she ever know that Claude, who has supplanted her husband in her life, killed her husband and her son? And, during the final scenes, how is a blinded man able to hold this strong woman back from saving her son?

Mr. Wroblewski, in an interview with Oprah, read a quotation from Kafka about how tragedy is what keeps us reading, its what strikes a mallet through the frozen ice of our hearts.

That's great, but unfortunately the ending of this novel is not tragic. In a tragedy, the protagonist's epiphany would be an understanding of the past before he dies. The protagonist would not be an adolescent whose epiphany is about the future — his own, his mother's, and that of his family's kennel.

I wasn't left gasping for breath or holding my heart as I would be at the end of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Instead, I felt cheated.

If Edgar realized the importance of this breed and this kennel. If he finally understood the importance of his family's training regime and why people would pay a significant price for their adult dogs, he should be allowed to live and make that vision a reality.

To kill him off is, I believe, a contrivance. The author may be striving for great tragedy, but this ending misses the mark.

This novel draws many obvious parallels with Shakespeare's Hamlet, but I have to ask why? This too seems contrived but also seems to have seduced many reviewers with its headiness. But, I must ask, what is the purpose of drawing parallels between Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Edgar, mute nature boy of Wisconsin? I don't get it. It seems to be stretching for literary connections when in reality great literature is right at this talented author's fingers on the keyboard. He does not need Shakespeare to create a beautiful Great American Novel. The lofty Shakespearean connections are frankly quite lost on me, a kid of the Midwest and a student of literature, who has read lots of Shakespeare.

And to have the dogs wander off into the wilderness without their human leader? Will the older dogs really be able to provide for them? Many of these dear animals will surely die painful deaths. And, if they do not reunite with humans, all the breeding for the perfect companion dog will have been for naught, which is the most maddening thought of all.

This writer has tremendous talent, but needs help shaping the words into a coherent whole. This novel offers the reader such pleasure and such promise that one is most angry at the editors and the final outcome. This writer's talents were squandered by poor editing.

I must say, however, that I really look forward to his next novel. I hope he continues to write about landscape, about people, and, most of all, about dogs.


Anonymous said...

If David Wroblewski is so wise, I should think he might request Laura McGowan to be part of the editing team!!

NikkiD said...

I enjoyed reading this book up until I read the last quarter fo it. I got teary when Almondine died. And practically yelled, what?!!? At the end. I found the book to be somewhat unfulfilling. I agree that Wroblewski missed the mark on writing a tragedy.