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  New York Times Review

NEAR the beginning of the fifth act of "Hamlet," just a few lines after he fondles Yorick's skull, the Prince of Denmark grows distraught at the sight of Ophelia's burial and avows he'll do anything to avenge the death of his love - including eat a crocodile. When his boasts are taken for psychosis, Hamlet threatens, "Let Hercules himself do what he may,/The cat will mew, and dog will have his day." Here, David Wroblewski, in his ambitious first novel, uses the framework of Shakespeare's tragedy to grant that patient dog its day. "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is not alone, of course, in its reanimation of "Hamlet" (see Matt Haig's recent novel "The Dead Fathers Club," for example), but it is surely the first to populate it with so many hounds. Set chiefly in the early 1970s, near the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin, the novel tells the story of the Sawtelle family, which over the generations has strived to establish, through an expertmental amalgam of breeding, training and mysticism, the ne plus ultra of the companion dog. The goal is to produce free-willed, "choice making" creatures, ones that, having "learned that a certain expression on a person's face meant that something interesting lay behind them, or in another room," will pursue the action best for both themselves and their owners. Wroblewski, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and until recently worked as a software engineer, wrote his novel over the course of a decade, and he takes as much inspiration from Darwin and Mendel as he does from Kipling and London. The result is a sprawling, uneven work, at times brilliant but elsewhere sentimental and tedious. After several miscarriages, Trudy Sawtelle gives birth to Edgar, a boy who, like the family's dogs, can hear but cannot speak. The source of Edgar's disability is never understood - it is one of the book's many mysteries - but the muteness enables an almost supernatural connection between him and the animals. Edgar is smart, adamantly curious about both the natural and human world, and the language he creates is a resourceful patchwork of learned and invented signs. (With striking effect, Wroblewski renders Edgar's statements without quotation marks.) In the book's early sections, Wroblewski presents an idyll - Edgar and his father stroll serenely through the early morning woods, Edgar fumbles through the care of his first litter - that can seem mawkish and superficial. Edgar's father, Gar, is a vague sketch of benevolence and probity, and the outside world exists only in periodic pop culture references - Roger Miller, a man on the moon. Yet how can paradise be destroyed if it doesn't first exist? The destroyer enters in the form of Edgar's uncle, Claude, who, if a more complex character than his brother, is nonetheless depicted with a disconcerting number of clichés. The night Claude arrives, Edgar has a nightmare: "Claude spoke in a voice low and quiet, his face divided by a rippling line of cigarette smoke, his words a senseless jumble. But when Edgar looked down, he found himself standing in a whelping pen surrounded by a dozen pups, wrestling and chewing one another; and then, just as he lapsed into deep, blank sleep, they stood by the creek and one by one the pups waded into the shallow water and were swept away." The stream of words is graceful, but it amounts to the most obvious foreshadowing. After the "ferociously solitary" Claude repeatedly bickers with Gar, and Gar abruptly dies, Edgar knows but cannot prove Claude murdered his father. Wroblewski's literary skill is most apparent in his intoxicating descriptions of the bucolic setting. "The sapphire sky above floated a small, lone cloud made orange by the sunrise," he writes in one dreamlike sequence. "Sparrows cartwheeled over the wet field like glazier's points against the sky, and the swallows nesting in the eaves plunged into the morning air." Similarly, Wroblewski's handling of the ghost scene ("His head, his torso. Arms held away from his body. All formed by raindrops suspended and instantly replaced") and his transformation of "the play's the thing" into an ingenious skit of syringe-clenching dogs display a delightful legerdemain. The book's climax is a high-voltage ride of multiple perspectives and shifting time frames. Wroblewski seems aware of the two outsize risks he has undertaken - not merely deciding to retell "Hamlet," but combining it with a near categorically twee subject: slobbering, tail-wagging dogs. He handles his task with impressive subtlety, even when allowing the narrative a dog's-eye view. But while sections of this book achieve a piercing elegance, the novel too often slides into the torpid mode of field guides and breeding manuals, with Wroblewski's penchant for detail getting in the way of a full exploration of his characters' emotional cores. This concern with the exterior frequently eclipses his attention to the interior, a self-indulgence that the first-time author may well outgrow. Even Shakespeare had to first produce "Titus Andronicus." Wroblewski takes as much inspiration from Darwin and Mendel as he does from Kipling and Jack London. Mike Peed is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.

  Library Journal Review

Set in Wisconsin, this deeply nuanced epic tells the story of a boy, his dog, and much more. Father, son, and even dog take turns narrating before the story is told primarily by the inexplicably mute Edgar Sawtelle. Part mystery, part Hamlet, the story opens with a sinister and seemingly unrelated scene that begins to make sense as the narrative progresses. The rich depiction of Edgar's family, who are breeders of unique dogs, creates a warm glow that contrasts sharply with the cold evil that their family contains. This tension, along with a little salting of the paranormal, makes this an excruciatingly captivating read. Readers examine the concept of choice, the choice of the dogs in their relationship with people, and the choice of people in their acquiescence to or rejection of their perceived destiny. Ultimately liberating, though tragic and heart-wrenching, this book is unforgettable; overwhelmingly recommended for all libraries.-Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Booklist Review

Born without the ability to speak, Edgar Sawtelle grows up on a Wisconsin farm turned dog breeding and training kennel with his parents, using sign and gesture to aid the pursuit of perfecting canine companionship. Then, in an injection of Hamlet that one can almost map out point for point, the Sawtelle dream is poisoned. There is the murderous uncle who woos the widowed mother, a ghostly apparition of Edgar's father warning the boy of something rotten, and, most cleverly, a canine reenaction of the deadly deed before Edgar sets out into the wilderness with a trio of young pups. Wroblewski's debut novel is most revelatory in navigating the wordless avenues of communication running between man and animal, and in the thrilling, heartbreaking interiors of the Sawtelle dogs as they experience the world through differently tuned senses. Though the pacing is set somewhere between languorous and ponderous, more than just dog lovers will find themselves deeply immersed in Wroblewski's assured prose and broad swatches of carefully rendered imagery. High literary art from a talent that bears watching.--Chipman, Ian Copyright 2008 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

A stately, wonderfully written debut novel that incorporates a few of the great archetypes: a disabled but resourceful young man, a potential Clytemnestra of a mom and a faithful dog. Writing to such formulas, with concomitant omniscience and world-weariness, has long been the stuff of writing workshops. Wroblewski is the product of one such place, but he seems to have forgotten much of what he learned there: He takes an intense interest in his characters; takes pains to invest emotion and rough understanding in them; and sets them in motion with graceful language (and, in eponymous young Edgar's case, sign language). 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, at least in literature, have yet worked out. Edgar may be voiceless, but he is capable of expressing sorrow and rage when his father suddenly dies, and Edgar decides that his father's brother, who has been spending a great deal of time with Edgar's mother, is responsible for the crime. That's an appropriately tragic setup, and Edgar finds himself exiled to the bleak wintry woods--though not alone, for he is now the alpha of his own very special pack. The story takes Jungle Book-ish turns: "He blinked at the excess moonlight in the clearing and clapped for the dogs. High in the crown of a charred tree, an owl covered its dished face, and one branch down, three small replicas followed. Baboo came at once. Tinder had begun pushing into the tall grass and he turned and trotted back." It resolves, however, in ways that will satisfy grown-up readers. The novel succeeds admirably in telling its story from a dog's-eye view that finds the human world very strange indeed. An auspicious debut: a boon for dog lovers, and for fans of storytelling that eschews flash. Highly recommended. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections. Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward. David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes--the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain--create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.
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