Canines Emerge as Vital Characters in Debut Novel

Article excerpt

David Wroblewski wasn't worried the time he spent on his first novel might be fruitless.

Even if it wasn't published, the 10 years of writing, editing and revising were worthwhile.

"I was absolutely willing for it to be a learner's novel," says Wroblewski, who lives Colorado. "And I was determined I was going to write it in a way that made me happy and not worry about publishing it, because there would be other novels. This one was coming from the heart."

Wroblewski's efforts -- and faith in his material -- yielded "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle," one of the most atypical first novels in recent memory.

First, it's a stunningly well-written novel for a writer who previously published only a few short stories. Second, Wroblewski's subject matter is, literally, dog-eared. While the title character is a young boy who is born mute growing up in Wisconsin, the most vivid characters are Almondine, Essay, Tinder and Baboo, dogs raised by Edgar's family.

These, however, are not ordinary canines; they are "Sawtelle" dogs, specially bred to specifications developed by Edgar's grandfather. They are trained differently, sold only after more than a year of development and prized for their ability to make decisions independent of humans.

Wroblewski, whose family owned a kennel when he was growing up Wisconsin, got the idea for "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" in the mid- 1990s when it literally leapt into his lap in the form of his dog. Could he write a novel about what it was like to live with dogs, and about how to train them and be a responsible owner?

That day, it all came together in 15 minutes: "I knew where it began, I knew where it ended, and I knew it had a fairly formal structure of five acts," Wroblewski says. "Where it came from ... who knows how the kernel of the idea popped into my head? I have no idea."

He also sensed it would be a tricky feat balancing the wealth of information he researched about the cognitive abilities of canines with a narrative that would be compelling enough to intrigue readers. But he trusted his instincts and used his own affinity for dogs as a guide as he wrote.

"I'm the type of person, if there are 50 people in a room and a dog, I go straight to the dog," Wroblewski says. "That's just the way I'm built, and it has something to do with the way I was raised."

That is also the way Edgar Sawtelle navigates his world -- dog first. Born in the late 1950s, he is raised on a remote farm where his parents, Gar and Trudy, are the curators of a special breed of canine developed by Edgar's grandfather:

"Your grandfather didn't care about breeds," Edgar's father tells his son. …