Monday, June 21, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

This was a book club pick. I had pitched it, in part on LJ's suggestion.

The story is a re-imagining of Hamlet (or of The Lion King, if you prefer), set in rural Wisconsin in the mid-to-late 1900s.  The Sawtelle family is in the business of breeding and training dogs, as it has been for a couple generations.  They do not breed according to customary breeding practices, but instead find dogs with remarkable qualities (temperament, intelligence, etc.) and introduce them into the breeding population.  Before their dogs are sold into homes, they spend a year and half training them and recording the results of training, and use that data to better the lineage of the Sawtelle dogs.

The main character is Edgar who is not deaf but cannot speak.  This makes him similar to the dogs in the sense that he has a communication barrier; Edgar and his family develop a custom sign language to be able to communicate.  I appreciated this focus on communication because I find that 70% of successful dog training is about learning to communicate with your dog.  (The other 30% is operant conditioning; good training has virtually nothing to do with dominance or getting your dog to "obey".)

Some of the chapters are narrated by Almondine, an old dog with whom Edgar has grown up.  I think Wroblewski does a beautiful job of presenting dog thought in a unique way.  He makes Almondine something of a poet, and I preferred this to the usual approach in which authors turn the dogs into not-very-intelligent people.

I was hooked from the beginning and didn't want to put it down.  It wasn't slow for me at all.  I do have a couple quibbles with the ending.  Since they're spoilers, I'll slip behind the cut.

After Wroblewski spends a few gallons of ink on the idea of the Sawtelle dogs breeding for ill-defined qualities of excellence, I expected that at some point in the story, the dogs would behave in a surprising fashion -- that there would be a situation in which regular dogs would obviously follow one course of action (that would be bad), but where the Sawtelle dogs make another choice (that is good).  If Wroblewski did that, I completely missed it.  I didn't see a spot where these dogs behaved differently.  What did I miss, LJ? Am I supposed to think that regular dogs would have run into the burning barn to save Edgar, but that the Sawtelle dogs recognized the futility of that and saved their blood line by leaving? Whatever the moment was, he needed to be less subtle about it because I missed it even though I was looking for it.  And if he really didn't include any such moment, then he wasted my time with the breeding philosophy/details.

The sequel will start with the wandering dogs, I bet.  Maybe Wroblewski will re-imagine Exodus with the dogs as wanderers.

Update 6/23/10:  I've been reading comments on some book forums.  Lots of people think that the Sawtelle dogs made choices in a way that ordinary dogs would not.  There were at least a couple places where the dogs make choices:  1) whether to go with Henry or Edgar and 2) in the end, whether to run off or stay on the farm.   I don't find it all that out-of-the-ordinary for the dogs to make these choices.  And, for literary purposes, the choices they make need to yield a better result than would occur if they weren't Sawtelle dogs, otherwise, there's no point to the breeding aspect of the story.

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