Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Just Another Dog Book

On our trip to Alabama to check on my father-in-law, who had surgery Wednesday, I hunkered down with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski on my eBook and didn't stop reading until I finished it. I had actually planned to finish another book (Leif Enger's So Young, Brave, and Handsome) first, but once I got engrossed in this book, I could not stop. When my book group met, I insisted they needed to read it--even though I had just started reading myself. Now that I've finished, I need someone else to read it because I must talk about it.
I purchased the book (at a time when I certainly didn't need another book) because I kept finding it mentioned everywhere I turned. Reviews were popping up all over the place. When I look back at the blurbs listed by booksellers, I realize I never would have bought it without the reviews. Please note: despite appearance, this is NOT just another dog book. Touching on three generations of the Sawtelle family, the story is primarily that of Edgar, the youngest. He is born to a family of dog breeders--their own breed, not some fancy show dogs--and baffles the doctors: he is not deaf; he simply has no voice. As a baby, he cannot cry. As a young boy, he can't make a sound into the phone receiver when his father ffalls ill. He can, however, communicate with his family, his school friends (whom he has taught signs), and his dogs.
I am almost hesitant to mention the allusions to Hamlet threaded throughout the book. I like to think I would have recognized them without a tipoff (with characters named Claude and Trudy, for example). I wonder, though, if the foreknowledge alone made me heart squeeze as I neared the end. I think of Shakespeare's original audiences, who surely knew not to expect a feel-good ending with a cheery song and dance number when they attended a play with a title that began The Tragedy of....
What Wroblewski does best--at least one of the things I think he does best--is to draw the most compelling, quirky yet believable characters. Some of his secondary characters play such key roles--the local veterinarian and his son, the sheriff, the mystical woman who runs the store in Popcorn Corners and who has a kind of second sight. Most skillfully, he even characterizes the individual dogs with such distinctive qualitites that they are as real as the humans. Only Richard Adams in Watership Down has done as well with his rabbits. (I could tell Hazel from Fiver or Blueberry if I ran into them today.)

I'm actually having a hard time moving on to another book until I work through this one in my head. I think Edgar will be up there moving around in my brain for awhile--at least until I can talk to someone else who has finished the book.


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