Too many dog stories should come with warnings: Sentimentality ahead! Manipulative tear-jerker coming at you!
But David Wroblewski's debut novel is a dog-rich tale that manages to be the complete opposite of all that. Smart, interesting and original, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" explores an unusual relationship between dogs and people minus the usual quirky adorableness that plagues many books in this genre. This suspenseful coming-of-age story is lovely, absorbing and, above all, intelligent, a rare combination for readers who crave something more than the human equivalent of a dog treat in their reading.
Edgar is 14, and he lives in rural splendor on a Wisconsin farm with warm, loving parents. He was born mute and has developed a watchfulness that offers greater-than-usual insight into people and dogs. He's attuned to the natural world in ways that reveal things to him that others don't see.
The family raises Sawtelle dogs, a (fictional) breed they developed for their thoughtfulness and smarts. Edgar, poised to enter the family business, has just been given a litter to train for the first time. He's helped by his wordless connection with Almondine, Edgar's constant companion since he was born, who epitomizes the intuitive breed and serves as a sort of doggy guardian over the boy. The future, despite Edgar's inability to speak, looks bright.
Then Edgar's paternal uncle Claude comes to live with the family, and the seeds of change and possible destruction are planted. Claude has just been released from prison and doesn't cotton to some of the ways his brother is doing things around the family farm. Though he long ago allowed Edgar's dad to buy him out of the business, Claude develops a surprising interest in the dogs again, undercutting Edgar's father and provoking confrontations with roots in their childhood.
When Edgar's father dies, the boy is devastated. Claude begins to work his way into the family, driving the boy out of the house and onto an unplanned journey to find his father's killer. With his dogs as companions, he sets off into the gloriously depicted Wisconsin woods where he encounters hardship and pain but also learns about trust and the hard choices that adults must sometimes make.
The scenes of Edgar scraping by on bits of hot dog or half-loaves of bread stolen from untended camping sites are particularly memorable, as he shares the food equally with the dogs. There's a survivalist, living-by-your-wits sort of appeal to these passages that sharpens the story's focus
The book is long, and the action sags once or twice, but Wroblewski succeeds in the larger task of creating an authentic and interesting world that relies almost completely on the inner workings of Edgar and the dogs, the quiet co-stars of the book, with individual loyalties. Dogs, the author implies, are sometimes much smarter than people.
Even the single most painful moment in the book is dealt with swiftly and without ham-handed yanking of the heartstrings, a commendable bit of restraint and a nod of respect to readers, who will still fully realize the impact of the loss.
For all its length, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" explores the limits of words. Language and communication go far beyond the traditional stuff we write down or speak, the author writes. And as the story continues, it becomes clear that for Wroblewski anyway the world is a place where real communication requires an openness to our senses, a process restricted only by our poor, pitiful imaginations.