Hachiko and the Sawtelle Dogs

Edgar SawtelleEarlier, we wrote about Hachiko, the loyal akita inu revered by the Japanese for his dedication to his master.

Hachiko features in David Wroblewski’s stunning first book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and in this reader’s opinion, contributes to the brilliant sensitivity of the unusual Sawtelle dogs.

In the backwoods of Wisconsin, the Sawtelle family—Gar, Trudy and their young son, Edgar—carry on the family business of breeding and training dogs. These are no ordinary working dogs.

Edgar, born mute, has developed a special relationship and a unique means of communicating with Almondine, one of the Sawtelle dogs, a fictional breed distinguished by personality, temperament and the dogs’ ability to intuit commands and to make decisions.

Raising them is an arduous life, but a satisfying one for the family until Gar’s brother, Claude, a mystifying mixture of charm and menace, arrives. When Gar unexpectedly dies, mute Edgar cannot summon help via the telephone.

His guilt and grief give way to the realization that his father was murdered; the resemblance to Hamlet resonates. After another tragedy, Edgar goes on the run, accompanied by three loyal dogs.

At the heart of the book is a pup from an extremely rare breed, thanks to a family interest in Mendelian genetics; so rare is Almondine, indeed, that she finds ways to communicate with Edgar that no other dog and human have yet worked out. Edgar’s grandfather had a term for dogs like this: canis posterus – “next dogs”.

Edgar may be voiceless, but he is capable of expressing sorrow and rage when his father suddenly dies, and he realizes that his father’s brother, who has been spending a great deal of time with Edgar’s mother, is responsible for the crime.

In one eerie episode during a spring downpour, Edgar is awakened by the barking of the kennel dogs. Going out to investigate, he sees his father’s ghost. Gar’s ghost convinces Edgar that he really does exist by interacting with one of the pups. The pup can clearly sense Edgar’s father and, eventually, so can Edgar.

Edgar’s father makes an enigmatic sign to him: “Find H-A-A”.

Edgar is conflicted: “You’re not real. You can’t be real.”

But when Edgar finds a letter to his grandfather from the US Ambassador to Japan, he reads that, while following Hachiko from the train station, the Ambassador felt “…a third presence accompanied us, someone whom only Hachiko could see.”

This had happened before.

HachikoWroblewski comments on the Hachiko link:

I first learned about Hachiko back in the mid-1990s when I was doing early research for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The more I read, the more amazed I became, if only because I’d never heard of Hachiko before. I decided to find a way to include him, somehow, in the story. And so the basic facts of Hachiko’s life (that he accompanied his owner, Professor Ueno, to the Shibuya train station in Tokyo each day, and met him there again each afternoon; that Professor Ueno died suddenly at the university; that Hachiko continued to come to the train station to greet his master for years afterward; that a statue in the dog’s honor was erected at the station even while he was still alive) are suggested in some of the letters Edgar finds, though I embroidered upon those events to tie them to Edgar’s immediate predicament.

I didn’t mention that Hachiko was an Akita only because it didn’t seem important for the story—John Sawtelle drew on many breeds to create the Sawtelle dogs, and what was significant was Hachiko’s astonishing devotion, not his breed credentials. That, and the fact that John Sawtelle was sly and inventive enough to somehow wrangle a puppy from Hachiko’s bloodline after reading about his situation in a newspaper.

By the way, 2008 has been a great year for Hachiko devotees. Besides his appearance in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Hachiko is mentioned in Martha Sherrill’s superb book Dog Man, a biography of the man credited with rescuing the Akita breed from extinction after World War II. Hachiko is also the subject of a forthcoming motion picture, Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, directed by Lasse Halström and starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen.

An interesting twist to the Sawtelle story is that Edgar shares the traits of the marvellous dogs. He cannot speak, he sees ghosts, and he communicates by signs. He is loyal, but he chooses to run away and make it on his own by foraging and stealing, it is as alpha of his own pack.

Note to David Wroblewski: Those of us who share our lives with the Japanese spitz already know about canis posterus. Shhh. It’s our little secret…

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