A Boy, His Dog and Echoes Of 'Hamlet'

David Wroblewski
Marion Ettlinger

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Everyone loves a dog story (at least, everyone should), and everyone loves an author who, after decades of laboring in obscurity, hits it big with his very first novel.

The New York Times marveled at The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, calling it "a great, big, mesmerizing read." The Chicago Tribune dubbed it "meaty and masterly," and, to wit, "the best work of fiction ever written about dogs." The shades of Jack London, John Steinbeck and Franz Kafka may be barking in protest, but critics nationally are predicting big literary bones for author David Wroblewski.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about a boy and his dog, and if you think that sounds prosaic, think again. This boy is mute, and this dog is his voice and his protector. It's a special dog: a Sawtelle, a breed engineered by Edgar's kennel-running relatives.

The novel is set in Wisconsin, on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest and on the border of the Iron Range, where the author himself grew up. Wroblewski supported himself for years as a software developer as he worked on this novel. As a writer, he evokes not only the landscape of his upbringing but the books that shaped him, ranging from boys' wilderness adventure stories to Hamlet.

This reading of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle took place in June 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

Chapter One

A Handful of Leaves

In the year 1919, Edgar's grandfather, who was born with an extra share of whimsy, bought their land and all the buildings on it from a man he'd never met, a man named Schultz, who in his turn had walked away from a logging team half a decade earlier after seeing the chains on a fully loaded timber sled let go. Twenty tons of rolling maple buried a man where Schultz had stood the moment before. As he helped unpile logs to extract the wretched man's remains, Schultz remembered a pretty parcel of land he'd spied north and west of Mellen. The morning he signed the papers he rode one of his ponies along the logging road to his new property and picked out a spot in a clearing below a hill and by nightfall a workable pole stable stood on that ground. The next day he fetched the other pony and filled a yoked cart with supplies and the three of them walked back to his crude homestead, Schultz on foot, reins in hand, and the ponies in harness behind as they drew the cart along and listened to the creak of the dry axle. For the first few months he and the ponies slept side by side in the pole shed and quite often in his dreams Schultz heard the snap when the chains on that load of maple broke.

He tried his best to make a living there as a dairy farmer. In the five years he worked the land, he cleared one twenty-five-acre field and drained another, and he used the lumber from the trees he cut to build an outhouse, a barn, and a house, in that order. So that he wouldn't need to go outside to tote water, he dug his well in the hole that would become the basement of the house. He helped raise barns all the way from Tannery Town to Park Falls so there'd be plenty of help when his time came.

And day and night he pulled stumps. That first year he raked and harrowed the south field a dozen times until even his ponies seemed tired of it. He stacked rocks at the edges of the fields in long humped piles and burned stumps in bonfires that could be seen all the way from Popcorn Corners — the closest town, if you called that a town — and even Mellen. He managed to build a small stone-and-concrete silo taller than the barn, but he never got around to capping it. He mixed milk and linseed oil and rust and blood and used the concoction to paint the barn and outhouse red. In the south field he planted hay, and in the west, corn, because the west field was wet and the corn would grow faster there. During his last summer on the farm he even hired two men from town. But when autumn was on the horizon, something happened — no one knew just what — and he took a meager early harvest, auctioned off his livestock and farm implements, and moved away, all in the space of a few weeks.

At the time, John Sawtelle was traveling up north with no thought or intention of buying a farm. In fact, he'd put his fishing tackle into the Kissel and told Mary, his wife, he was delivering a puppy to a man he'd met on his last trip. Which was true, as far as it went. What he didn't mention was that he carried a spare collar in his pocket.

That spring their dog, Violet, who was good but wild-hearted, had dug a hole under the fence when she was in heat and run the streets with romance on her mind. They'd ended up chasing a litter of seven around the backyard. He could have given all the pups away to strangers, and he suspected he was going to have to, but the thing was, he liked having those pups around. Liked it in a primal, obsessive way. Violet was the first dog he'd ever owned, and the pups were the first pups he'd ever spent time with, and they yapped and chewed on his shoelaces and looked him in the eye. At night he found himself listening to records and sitting on the grass behind the house and teaching the pups odd little tricks they soon forgot while he and Mary talked. They were newlyweds, or almost. They sat there for hours and hours, and it was the finest time so far in his life. On those nights, he felt connected to something ancient and important that he couldn't name.

But he didn't like the idea of a stranger neglecting one of Vi's pups. The best thing would be if he could place them all in the neighborhood so he could keep tabs on them, watch them grow up, even if from a distance. Surely there were half a dozen kids within an easy walk who wanted a dog. People might think it peculiar, but they wouldn't mind if he asked to see the pups once in while.

Then he and a buddy had gone up to the Chequamegon, a long drive but worth it for the fishing. Plus, the Anti-Saloon League hadn't yet penetrated the north woods, and wasn't likely to, which was another thing he admired about the area. They'd stopped at The Hollow, in Mellen, and ordered a beer, and as they talked a man walked in followed by a dog, a big dog, gray and white with brown patches, some mix of husky and shepherd or something of that kind, a deep-chested beast with a regal bearing and a joyful, jaunty carriage. Every person in the bar seemed to know the dog, who trotted around greeting the patrons.

"That's a fine looking animal," John Sawtelle remarked, watching it work the crowd for peanuts and jerky. He offered to buy the dog's owner a beer for the pleasure of an introduction.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

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