Category Archives: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Book Club Discussion Questions

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiAs promised, here are some of the discussion questions for David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel that my book club brought up:

  1. It is quite rare that a person is born mute but not deaf. How do you think the fact that Edgar could hear but not speak, added or detracted from this story and his relationships with the people and animals in his life?
  2. Tell us about your pet(s) or comment on how you feel about dogs, dog breeding and training.
  3. Claude is a curious presence in the story. What does he want, when did he start wanting it and how do you feel about the ways he went about obtaining what mattered most to him?
  4. The book contains much symbolism and some unexplained events that are left to the reader’s interpretation to understand. Give one (at least) example of symbolism, or a mystery, and explain how you came to understand this by using your imagination and/or logic to determine how it best fit within the story.

Enjoy!

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – Message from David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiJust received this message from David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel, through one of my book clubs:

Message from the author David Wroblewski

In my earliest memory—earliest of any kind—I am kneeling on the couch in the living room of our house in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, looking out the picture window. Our collie, Princess, is perched on the cushion beside me, and together we are watching three women coming up the sidewalk. I can’t be much more than 2 years old, and I don’t recall our visitors’ purpose, but I must have set my hand against Princess as we looked out the window, for I can vividly recall the warmth and reassuring mass of her body and the texture of her fur against my fingertips. I suppose that moment is the beginning of my interest in the canine world, though who can pinpoint such things? Perhaps I was just born with a kind of certainty about dogs and our relationship to them. What I know is this: in my memory of that instant, there is no boundary between us. I am me, yes, and she is her, but we are also somehow the same. We are connected as we watch the women approach. They are talking and laughing, swaying along in a friendly, triangular formation. Then they are at the door. They are wearing woolen coats: It must have been spring or fall. Fall, I think. It may have been my birthday, because they are carrying something, and there must be some reason this otherwise ordinary afternoon has stayed with me all these years. One of the women reaches out. The doorbell rings.

When I was about 12 years old, someone abandoned a half-grown pup on the road near our farm. This pup ran wild through the woods for I don’t know how long, appearing to us periodically as a flash of orange and white bolting through the field. One morning, my father spied him eating the gravel off the road. In time, we were able to coax the dog into the yard, and he become “my” dog, though, considering that he refused ever to come into the house or even allow a collar to be put on him, it was difficult to know who was adopting whom. We guessed he was half collie, half German shepherd. I named him Prince. For some reason, during those years, there was an explosion in the skunk population, and Prince took it as his sacred duty to corner any skunk that trundled into our yard, keeping the animal trapped (often under the bathroom window) with what was to me a mortifying and fascinating single mindedness, an electric ferocity in his movements. My father, worried about rabies, forbade us from going outside when this happened; he would go to the gun case and fetch his shotgun and trudge out the back door. Long before he arrived on the scene, however, Prince would have been soaked with scent, repeatedly. I spent many summer mornings making Prince stand still for a bath, scolding him. I remember his response: an unrepentant, almost prideful, gaze, which seemed to say, “No regrets. I can see what’s right and wrong.”

A final memory: one afternoon, now years ago, as I was struggling to revise a draft of Edgar Sawtelle, my partner, Kimberly, gave me this advice: Imagine someone reading Edgar’s story on a long train ride home from work. That was all she said, nothing more, yet it is probably the single most useful bit of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Before she turned away, I’d already filled in the details: that person was a man, and he’d had a dispiriting day at work; he’d grown up in the country, but now he worked in the city, and on that particular day he was feeling as if he’d lost his way in life—that his life had been reduced to a train ride from here to there and back, over and over again. I understood that the man was not me, exactly, but rather some version of me, and because this was so I could remind him: you were once connected to the wild world. Don’t forget what that was like. I could see him, alone in his train car. As the fluorescent ceiling lights gradually superseded the dusk outside, the window glass became a long, black mirror. The man’s head was bent over his book. I badly wanted to talk to him, but it was impossible, and eventually, when I had watched him long enough, I turned my attention back to the manuscript and got to work.

These memories reflect, I’m sure, some of my lifelong preoccupations, one being the extraordinary quality of our relationship with dogs, because The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is unabashedly a dog story. A love story, in fact. Writing it has given me a chance to consider how intertwined our species have become. How, over millennia, we’ve changed dogs and how dogs, in turn, have changed us. How the rituals and obligations of animal companionship also grant moments that transcend human experience. Another preoccupation of mine, not unrelated to the first, has to do with the nature of wildness in the human character. We glimpse it in ourselves every day, from the surge of emotion that rises from nowhere to the flash of inspiration we can’t explain. Even memory itself, the very core of our identity, remains slyly feral, heedlessly retrieving all manner of incident and image, indifferent to whether its discoveries are burdens or gifts.

Since the book’s publication, readers have occasionally turned to me with questions. While it’s true that I love talking about Edgar’s story, I’ve also found myself admitting that I don’t want—and don’t have—any final answers, any overarching, ambiguity-smashing point of view. Writing a novel may not absolutely require losing perspective, but I nonetheless have. Edgar, Almondine and the people in their world feel as real to me as anyone I have ever known, and thus, by turns transparent, inexplicable and fascinating. It is as true for the writer as for the reader that any novel worth its ink should be an experience first and foremost—not an essay, not a statement, not an orderly rollout of themes and propositions. All of which is to say: stories, too, are wild things.

Will post some additional discussion questions from my book club over the next week.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Discussion Questions

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiA few days ago, I finished the latest selection from my book club: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel by David Wroblewski.

Quite a powerful story. I recommend this book and I definitely suggest, as many others have, that you do not read anything about the book (especially not the inside cover) before starting the book. The inside cover gives a basic (but thorough) summary of the entire story.

If you have read the book, take a look at some of the author’s discussion questions (warning, spoilers):

  1. How would Edgar’s story have been different if he had been born with a voice? How would Edgar himself have been different? Since Edgar can communicate perfectly well in sign most of the time, why should having a voice make any difference at all?
  2. At one point in this story, Trudy tells Edgar that what makes the Sawtelle dogs valuable is something that cannot be put into words, at least by her. By the end of the story, Edgar feels he understands what she meant, though he is equally at a loss to name this quality. What do you think Trudy meant?
  3. How does Almondine’s way of seeing the world differ from the human characters in this story? Does Essay’s perception (which we can only infer) differ from Almondine’s? Assuming that both dogs are examples of what John Sawtelle dubbed canis posterus, “the next dogs”, what specifically can they do that other dogs cannot?
  4. In what ways have dog training techniques changed in the last few decades? Do Edgar’s own methods change over the course of the story? If so, why? Do different methods of dog training represent a trade-off of some kind, or are certain methods simply better? Would it be more or less difficult to train a breed of dogs that had been selected for many generations for their intellect?
  5. Haunting is a prominent motif in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. How many ghosts, both literal and figurative, are in this story? In what ways are the ghosts alike? Who is haunted, and by whom?
  6. One of the abiding mysteries in Edgar’s life concerns how his parents met. In fact, Edgar is an inveterate snoop about it. Yet when Trudy finally offers to tell him, he decides he’d rather not know. What does that reveal about Edgar’s character or his state of mind? Do you think he might have made a different decision earlier in the story?
  7. At first glance, Henry Lamb seems an unlikely caretaker for a pair of Sawtelle dogs, yet Edgar feels that Tinder and Baboo will be safe with him. What is it about Henry that makes him fit? Would it have been better if Edgar had placed the dogs with someone more experienced? Why doesn’t Edgar simply insist that all the dogs return home with him?
  8. Claude is a mysterious presence in this story. What does he want and when did he start wanting it? What is his modus operandi? Would his methods work in the real world, or is such behavior merely a convenient trope of fiction? Two of the final chapters are told from Claude’s point of view. Do they help explain his character or motivation?
  9. In one of Edgar’s favorite passages from The Jungle Book, Bagheera tells Mowgli that he was once a caged animal, until “one night I felt that I was Bagheera – the Panther – and no man’s plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away.” There is a dialectic in Edgar’s story that is similarly concerned with the ideas of wildness and domestication. How does this manifest itself? What is the “wildest” element in the story? What is the most “domestic”?
  10. Mark Doty has called The Story of Edgar Sawtelle “an American Hamlet.” Certainly, there are moments that evoke that older drama, but many other significant story elements do not. Edgar’s encounter with Ida Paine is one example out of many. Are other Shakespearean plays evoked in this story? Consider Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest. In what sense is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle like all Elizabethan stage drama? Is it important to know (or not know) that the story is, at some level, a retelling of an older tale? Do you think Elizabethan audiences were aware that Hamlet was itself a retelling of an older story?
  11. Until it surfaces later in the story, some readers forget entirely about the poison that makes its appearance in the Prologue; others never lose track of it. Which kind of reader were you? What is the nature of the poison? When the man and the old herbalist argue in the Prologue, who did you think was right?
  12. In the final moments of the story, Essay must make a choice. What do you think she decides, and why? Do you think all the dogs will abide by her decision?

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiOne of my book clubs has just selected yet another Oprah’s Book Club book as it’s next selection: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel by David Wroblewski.

Some of the girls in my book club said that Oprah told her viewers not to read the inside cover of the book until they have read the book, and the girls in my book club who have already read the book suggested not reading anything about the book until you’ve read the book in its entirety.

So all I know about this book is what I read in Janet Maslin‘s review for the New York Times “Talking to Dogs, Without a Word” published june 13, 2008.

That’s all I’ll say since I’d hate to spoil the book for anyone.

Click here to visit the author’s website where you can read an excerpt, find discussion questions, and much more.