I finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle eight days ago. When I was done, I was…mad. I was mad at the characters, mad at the writer. You know how when you watch those teen slasher movies, and the couple are in this big lonely castle and they just HAVE to go investigate that strange noise in the basement? And you, in the audience, are screaming, “NO! Don’t go down there! How stupid can you be? Didn’t you see “Rocky Horror Picture Show”?”
Well, Edgar Sawtelle is a lot more subtle than that, but it seems like every time the characters have a choice to make between one course of action and another, they always choose the wrong one. You can see it, but they can’t. Remember the classic Greek tragedies? It’s always either some character flaw (hubris comes to mind) or Fate, which takes them down a road they were destined to travel regardless. Fate, by the way, is a much scarier concept than character flaws.
It turns out that it was the writer’s plan to write a tragedy. In fact, it is almost a retelling of a certain famous play I won’t name, although you can find out which with some diligent Internet searching. I wouldn’t recommend it if you intend to read the book, since much of the joy in a book is the surprise. I may in fact have already told you too much, since the characters and events in the book will remind you of something if you remember anything about high school or college literature. Trust me, you did read this play.
But in spite of making me mad, the book is a jewel. It’s well written, and what made me connect to it was the dogs. The dogs are basically equal characters in the book, and it reminded me of why we humans are so connected to dogs. In particular there is the family’s one and only “house dog”, Almondine. Almondine is the first one to discover that Edgar can’t talk. She hears a difference in his breathing when he is a baby and alerts Edgar’s mother. (Edgar is trying to cry, but can’t make a sound.) From that moment on, she knows that it is her job to protect him, and she is happy to have a job.
Skip forward to when Almondine is 14 and arthritic. Edgar has to flee his home (makes the wrong choice, is urged by his mother, has a character flaw, Fate has intervened…you choose) and doesn’t take his best friend and guardian with him. Not that she would have survived his punishing travels. But there is nothing in the book more poignant than Almondine, having searched high and low for him–on the bed, under the bed, behind the refrigerator–and having asked all the objects on their farm where he is, deciding that she must roam a bit herself and ask new objects where he is. The ones on their farm either don’t know, or aren’t saying.
The end of the book is…volcanic. Let’s just say, that for reasons I won’t explain, it made me want to reread Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. I had to find that in the “junior fiction” section of the library. I doubt that’s what what Jack London had in mind when he wrote it. However, I first read the book when I was 11 years old. Now, re-reading it, I wonder how I could stand it at that age. It’s brutal.
I’ve read several books in the days since I finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but it haunts me still.