54 pages 1 hour read

David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), American author David Wroblewski’s family epic set in 1970s rural Wisconsin, fuses elements of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the story of a gifted boy named Edgar who is mute. Initial critical reaction celebrated the reach of its intricate plot, its massive cast of characters, the audacity of its retelling of Hamlet, and its investigation into the dark dynamics of a dysfunctional family, particularly the complex relationship between feuding brothers.

Plot Summary

In the late 1940s, Brothers Gar (short for Edgar) and Claude Sawtelle grow up on their family’s northern Wisconsin farm where the family, drawing on cutting-edge genetic theories, breeds dogs. With the onset of the Korean War, Claude, never enamored with the dog breeding business, departs the farm to serve in the navy. Gar takes over the family business. He marries Gertrude (Trudy), and the couple has one child, a son they name Edgar. The boy, born mute, establishes deep connections with several of the family’s prized dogs, and Gar gives his son the opportunities at a young age to train them.

When Edgar is 12, his uncle Claude returns to the farm. Although Edgar is never sure why, he senses his father and his uncle do not get along. After a few weeks, Claude departs abruptly. Days later, Edgar discovers his father sprawled on the floor of the barn struggling to breathe. Edgar watches as his father dies. The coroner suggests an aneurysm but cannot be certain.

Edgar and his mother vow to maintain the farm. When his mother is bedridden with pneumonia, however, Edgar finds the responsibilities crushing. One night he forgets to feed the dogs in the kennel, and a vicious fight breaks out. Edgar sees that running the farm is too much, and, with the help of the kindly local veterinarian Dr. Papineau, he calls his uncle to come help.

Over the first weeks of his uncle’s return, Claude and Edgar’s mother begin a romantic relationship. Edgar is troubled by this. Then one rainy night when he goes to the kennel to check on why the dogs are baying, Edgar sees the ghost of his father. The ghost directs Edgar to a hypodermic syringe hidden in the floorboards of the barn. Edgar is sure the syringe is connected to his father’s mysterious death, and he is determined to find out how. When a buyer comes to the farm to inspect the dogs, Edgar has his trained dogs perform a series of practices in which one dog retrieves a prop syringe and lays it at Claude’s feet. The performance has its intended effect on Claude, and Edgar believes he has found his father’s killer.

His mother, however, is furious over Edgar’s dog show. When she rebukes her son, a desperate Edgar, thinking he sees Claude eavesdropping on their conversation, swings a hay hook at the figure he believes to be his uncle, only to strike and kill Dr. Papineau. At his mother’s urging, young Edgar flees the farm and heads into the forest, accompanied only by three dogs he trained.

Edgar, surviving on whatever food he can steal, believes he and the dogs will only be safe in Canada. But when one of the dogs cuts his paw on a sliver of glass, a desperate Edgar solicits help, ironically, from the owner of one of the houses he has robbed. The owner, Henry Lamb, offers Edgar a place to stay while the dog recovers and even offers to drive him the rest of the way to Canada. But when a tornado strikes, Edgar senses he needs to stop running and heads home, leaving two of the dogs with Henry. Edgar is determined more than ever to get to the bottom of his father’s death.

After stopping at his father’s grave, Edgar returns home and leaves a note in the kitchen for his mother telling her he would see her the next morning. His uncle, however, intercepts the note. Fearful what Edgar might do, Claude notifies the police chief, the dead veterinarian’s son, and tells him that Edgar, still wanted for questioning, has returned. That night, Edgar, sleeping in the barn with the dogs, sees Claude hide a bottle in the barn. Certain the bottle has something to do with his father’s death, Edgar tells his mother he needs a night alone in the barn to try to find the bottle. However, that night the local police chief, with Claude’s help, storms the barn to arrest Edgar. He plans to knock out the boy using rags soaked in ether, a bottle of which the sheriff carries with him

Half-asleep in the barn, Edgar panics when the police chief attempts to grab him. The boy blindly reaches for something to throw, grabbing quicklime. When he throws the quicklime into the police chief’s face, it burns his eyes. Meanwhile, fumes from the ether bottle ignite in the barn’s unprotected lights, and a massive fire breaks out. Edgar first tries to herd as many of the kenneled dogs outside as possible and then turns to salvage the file records of the family’s breeding business stored in the barn. Unbeknownst to him, his uncle hid the poison among the folders in the file cabinet. Desperate now to stop Edgar from finding the poison, Claude heads into the barn, retrieves the bottle himself, and then stabs his nephew with a syringe filled with the poison. Edgar collapses in the swirling flames.

The barn is now engulfed in fire. Claude struggles to find his way out. He thinks he sees in the swirling smoke the outline of his dead brother. Panicked, he stumbles about in the smoke until he collapses, dead. Outside, the dogs flee, heading into the precarious freedom of the surrounding woods.

This study guide uses the 2009 paperback edition published by HarperCollins/Ecco.

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