There are few bonds like that between a child and his or her first dog. It sounds sappy, but it's true: Think back to the dog you grew up with, the one who kept an eye on you, the one who growled at your friends when they played rough, and curled up on your bed at night. Then remember how you felt when that dog died, and you'll come close to understanding the emotional impact of David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
Wroblewski's 500-plus-page novel begins in a tiny Wisconsin town with John Sawtelle, who is determined to develop an entirely new breed of dog. He devotes himself to tracking down dogs who have distinguished themselves through outstanding bravery or loyalty, and breeds them without regard for appearance until, many generations of canines—and two generations of humans—later, the so-called Sawtelle dogs are legendary, known for an uncanny empathy and reasoning ability. John's grandson Edgar grows up raising and training these extraordinary dogs—Edgar is mute, and he shares a deep, empathetic bond with the animals. (He's also hyper-literate, and has an enormous vocabulary and an affection for The Jungle Book that forces a comparison between Edgar and Mowgli, both of whom are caught between the human and animal worlds.) And, like dogs are often believed to be, Edgar is sensitive to supernatural presences—there are ghosts in this novel, and fortune tellers who speak in riddles, and it's a testament to Wroblewski's talent that the reader accepts all of this without a shred of skepticism.
When Edgar's father dies under suspicious circumstances, Edgar believes his uncle, Claude, is responsible—making it all the more difficult when Claude begins seeing Edgar's mother. Unable to accept Claude's presence in his mother's bed, Edgar flees to the woods, leaving behind his beloved childhood dog, Almondine, who grieves for him in some of the book's most understated and affecting passages.
It's Hamlet, only Ophelia is a dog, with some Kipling thrown in for good measure. And it works: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a huge, affectionate, bittersweet sprawl of a book, one you can crawl inside of for days, forgetting the outside world exists. And if you don't already have a dog, I guarantee you will want one by the time you're finished reading it.