Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle

First, here's a link to a wonderful site concerning a prize named for one of the best children's authors I've ever read, Roald Dahl.

The Roald Dahl Funny Prize
Website for this competition inaugurated in 2008 that presents prizes for "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Six and Under" and "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Seven to Fourteen." Includes lists of nominated books, an article about the science of humor, and links to site about author Roald Dahl. From Booktrust, a British organization "that encourages people of all ages and cultures to discover and enjoy reading."
LII Item:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (Oprah Book Club)
by David Wroblewski

I read this book for my KCLS Tuesday night book group which will meet again in November.
Here's the synopsis from, which outlines the book better than I could:

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes--the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain--create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.

I have to disagree with some of the above, mainly because, though I realize it's a modern take on Hamlet, I didn't think this book was as glorious as Oprah and all the other tastemakers seem to think it is.
My first problem with the book was Edgar loved his dog Almondine more than he loved his own mother, and when he dies, his spirit is ushered into the spirit realm not by his father, whom he loved, nor his mother, but by this dog who has looked after him so tenderly since he was a child. And therein lies another of my problems with this novel.
Dogs are pack animals, emphasis on the animal. They do not have huge brains that think and reason the way humans do. I know that there are millions of people out there who think that their dog/cat/goldfish is exceptionally smart and understands them when they talk and is anthropomorphized to the hilt. But really, people, a dog is still a dog, not a human, and they just are not that smart. They are creatures of instinct. But the author, I'll call him David because his last name is ridiculous, has cast these Sawtelle bred and trained dogs as some kind of super canine that can see into the human soul and do/think amazing things. That just didn't wash with me.

Nor did the seemingly endless narratives of the intricacies of dog training. I do not hate animals, not by a long shot, but my eyes glazed over and I nearly fell asleep every time David started to go on and on about the various kinds of training, hand signals, postures, whelping of pups, breeding lines, etc. YAWN.

David's prose is, for the most part, quite Steinbeck-like and evocative, so there are plenty of paragraphs that sing off the page and glisten with gorgeous metaphors. And those parts are what kept me reading through the incredibly dull passages about the stupid dogs. Seriously, you really have to be into dogs in a big way to enjoy this book in its entirety. And that's another flaw, the length of this tome. It's massive, and a good editor could have trimmed at least 100 pages off of it without hurting the storyline at all. There were lots of things in this book that we really didn't need to know, that were throw aways and worthless to the advancement of the plot. And speaking of the plot, though its cobbed from Shakespeare, this has to be the slowest, most roundabout way of getting from the beginning to the end that I've ever read. It's almost as if David feels that because the action takes place in the midwest, on a farm, that the plot should also move seasonally, slowly, and just take its own sweet time of getting the story told.
I grew up in Iowa, so I can appreciate the deliberate pace of farming, but I don't think that kind of movement is at all appropriate in a novel. Most people really do not have time to linger over every wispy thought that an author has about the beauty of farmland or the way a barn smells in the summer. I kept wanting to tell the author to get over himself, that it's only showing off to waste the readers time with so much description and narration.
Edgars mother is unlike any Midwestern woman I've ever encountered, as she's a complete idiot who can't seem to see the evil in her husbands brother, though its clear he's up to no good from the moment we meet him. And, sadly, he never gets his comeuppance for being a murdering slimebag. In fact, we never actually know if he dies or not, but of course Edgar gets slaughtered by evil uncle and we're supposed to be okay with that.
There is little to recommend the other characters in the book, from the stupid veterinarian and his ox-like son to the old man who rescues Edgar and his dogs from starvation when they're on the run. Most of the people in this book are weak and ridiculous, if they're not murderous, sly and evil. I would guess that David has a very dim view of humanity in general, which doesn't make for good storytelling, in my opinion. The entire book can be summed up by the phrase, "Life's a bitch (as in female dog) and then you die."
So if you have a month or two to devote to reading a glacially-slow plot in a book about anthropomorphized dogs that don't really exist, and you find mute teenagers interesting, then by all means, pick up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you doze off halfway through.


r1wigs said...

I completely agree, the book was really not as good as Oprah claimed. I was so bored through the book that I kept skipping pages, looking for something interesting and I am a dog lover. I never felt the connection between Edgar and Almondine was firmly established. This book cannot compare to "Where the Red Fern Grows".

DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog, wigs, I appreciate you taking the time to read my review.
And I agree, there are parts of this book that are really boring. Yes, Where the Red Fern Grows is a better book, but then, its a classic, and this book is modern fiction, and I'm beginning to realize that most modern fiction will never become classic fiction because authors today are, for the most part, not good craftsmen and women when it comes to wordsmithing.