Dogs and tragedy: David Wroblewski’s “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”


I could always tell when Oprah put a book on her “Oprah’s List”, as within 24 hours the library where I’d work would have a holds list as long as my arm on some book I’d often not heard of before1. My only real complaint about that was it would have been nice if Oprah had figured out how to tip libraries and bookstores the wink before she announced her next choice, so we could have gotten an extra copy or something. I’m glad she did put in a plug for books and reading; so many people watched the show that it produced a decent spike in reading.

The basic plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is fairly simple: for generations (of dogs), the Sawtelle family has been breeding dogs for personality rather than for appearance. The main plot of the book begins with Gar (short for Edgar) and his wife, Trudy on the family farm in rural northern Wisconsin2, and their son Edgar, born mute but able to sign. Gar dies under somewhat suspicious circumstances when only his son is on the farm, and, unable to call for help for his father, Edgar is traumatized. Trudy holds the farm and the business together with the help of her brother in law, Claude. Things are going well, though barely, until Edgar inadvertently kills the father of the local police officer and flees into the wilds of Wisconsin with three of his dogs. After two months of furtively skulking about the state park, breaking into summer cabins to steal food, Edgar is talked into returning home by a grumpy old codger who befriends him…and rather than give the ending away, I’m just going to say “If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll have figured the ending out by about 25% of the way into the book.”

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a moderately well written adaptation of Hamlet, though anyone with a decent grounding in Shakespeare will see each plot move telegraphed well in advance; naming two of the primary characters Claude and Trudy is a dead giveaway about the Shakespearean connection, but that’s the only obvious connection3. The plot’s decent–without the telltale names, I wouldn’t have guessed where he got the plot but the book as a whole feels like he spent more time on description than on character development. Wroblewski’s writing style is not bad at all, although I might think differently if I knew more about dog training/breeding or northern Wisconsin, but I wonder how much attention he would have gotten if it hadn’t been an “Oprah Book”. Overall, the book reads like a first novel into which the author has poured his entire heart without thinking (much) about what to write next. I’ll reserve judgement on Wroblewski as an author until I see subsequent novels of equivalent quality, and I’m not much inclined to read this book again.

1Well, when she was on a Classic Fiction kick, it’d be some book that had languished on our shelves gathering dust for years; what can I say? I didn’t read a lot of modern fiction when I was employed.
2is there anything but rural in northern Wisconsin?
3to me anyway; I’m more than a titch familiar with Shakespeare, but I don’t go looking for plots ripped off from his plays under rocks or anything.

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