- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE

By David Wroblewski

Ecco, $26.95, 576 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

Haunted and haunting is the life of Edgar Sawtelle, a boy without a voice whose subtle communication is with dogs trained to a high level of sensitivity.

David Wroblewski has written an already acclaimed and memorable book that depends on originality and a lyrical prose style for its success. That in itself puts it in a class far removed from a current world of publishing that seems to be dominated by either the graphically gruesome or cloying self-help. The author also is to be praised for his portrayal of animals unafflicted by a case of the terminal cutes frequently found in movies. The Wroblewski dogs demonstrate how much they have to give and to teach in return for their partnership with people. They are trained in a form of communication that transcends the face-licking devotion generally associated with dogs raised by conventional methods as pets.

Mr. Wroblewski’s concepts are based on experience. He and his wife run a kennel near a national forest in Wisconsin and he was quoted in a recent interview as saying that the unusual dogs they raise are an unspecified behavioral breed possessing “an extra increment of communication, insight, ability or all those things.” He uses as a poignant example the partnership of the voiceless child Edgar with Almondine, the dog who has the role of courier and caretaker in his life.

Mr. Wroblewski conjures up Almondine’s dying moments in which she recalls “the language the two of them had invented, a language in which everything important could be said… She had learned in her life that time lived inside you. Now she held inside her a cacophony of times.” She also knows the most significant of those times was the birth of Edgar, the baby who could hear but had no voice.

“That was when Almondine knew at last she had a job to do.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its detailed account of how such specialized breeds of dogs are bred and trained.

This is the lesson the boy Edgar learns from his father, Gar Sawtelle, who explains that a litter is “like an x-ray” of the dogs’ ancestry stretching back generations. The boy is taught the links between training, breeding and record keeping at the kennels as the dogs are meticulously raised to maturity “as if every dog had a voice in selecting the following generations.”

Edgar, whose fluency in sign language is his bridge between his parents and the dogs, eagerly and conscientiously learns how to follow in the footsteps of his father. The closeness between them makes Gar’s sudden death not only devastating but psychologically corrosive at first because the boy is convinced his inability to utter a sound prevented him from bringing the help that might have saved or prolonged his father’s life. His suffering is made unbearable by his belief that his sinister paternal uncle, Claude, was the killer of his father.

It is at that traumatic point that Edgar flees his home in remote Wisconsin, and comes of age in the wilderness with three of the Sawtelle dogs who become not only his faithful companions but his mentors.

The dogs understand everything that Edgar does not say. He has their total loyalty and obedience. Yet in a twist of irony, they also prove capable of leaving him for a kindly stranger to whom Edgar has imparted the knowledge of the canine world inherited from his father. Mr. Wroblewski noted in an interview that when he decided to write about dogs it had to be about the way he knew them as a child.

“Not as fictional devices. Real dogs.”

That is why his book is hard to forget. There is a quality of sad reality in the relationships it explores, from the marriage of Edgar’s parents to the rogue uncle and the boy’s struggle to deal with a life both difficult and complicated. When he is an infant, a woman experienced in dealing with those who cannot speak but who can hear, tells his mother of the tragedy of such children.

“I’m talking about perfectly intelligent, capable children abandoned because they did not know that sound existed. By the time someone recognized they lacked only hearing, they were handicapped forever.”

When Edgar returns to face the nightmare of his home, his world explodes in a dark and fiery climax. Yet in the end, the dogs move on. The dogs who had “measured their lives by proximity to that silent, inward creature, the dark haired sky-eyed boy they’d watched since the moment of their birth.” Joined by a strange stray dog called Forte, which has moved through the book like a ghost, they leave their home and move on.

Mr. Wroblewski called it “a book about a boy and a dog.” It is far more than that.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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