A great book that is truly heartbreaking and devastating, but that's not why I gave it four out of five stars. I think that parts of this book are wonderfully written, concise and at the same time descriptive to the point that Wroblewski can paint an image so perfect that it makes you want to dive in. But there are big segments of the book, particularly in it's middle where he loses the build up of tension in long, overly drawn out and contrived scenes, that no matter how hard I try, I can't see how they fit the overall narrative or flush out a character. Here I'm specifically referring to Edgar's exodus with Baboo, Tinder, and Essay, in which 80-90 pages are wasted looking for food, describing the type of food, describing each camping hut or cabin, etc. etc.
That being said, I love the fact that Wroblewski doesn't pull punches. This is a typical American story, and in many ways, the way its resolved, isn't. Edgar Sawtelle is a mute boy raised on a farm in Illinois. His parents raise dogs, very special dogs, and Edgar helps out in the family business and begins to learn the ropes so he can one day continue the kennel in his father's place. That is until dear old uncle Claude arrives. Claude's arrival signals a breakdown in the Sawtelle family that is just pure misery to watch, and Wroblewski does a fantastic job making Claude probably the most despicable, least likable character ever. Events quickly spiral out of control and Edgar finds himself with a lot of responsibility, at far too young an age, forcing him on a journey of a lifetime, fleeing from his own actions and the authorities with none but three of his most trusted dogs from his first litter. Through his journey, Edgar matures and turns into his father in many ways, and through hardship learns the meaning of his life and the meaning of his family's work in raising and placing dogs. Pretty standard coming of age story, with some slight twists. The primary thing that makes this book shine is its simple and straightforward narrative and the imagery created by Wroblewski. I think the last novel that painted pictures like this in my mind was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
Of course for a dog lover, the appeal of a story of a young boy and a bunch of super-intelligent and loyal canines is irresistible, and there were some pretty strong moments that reminded me so much of my first dog, my soul mate Cookie, that I had to stop reading and start digging up old photos. Cookie was my Almondine, we grew up together, and there were times when I thought she could read my mind just like Almondine reads Edgars; times when I would run laps around the back yard with her in hot pursuit, just like Almondine and Edgar; times when I would be sick and sleep on the couch (a weird habit I'd have as a kid) and wake up to find her balled up at my feet, even though my mom insisted that she stay out of the house. Wroblewski successfully captures such a big part of so many people's childhoods that the book comes off as sentimental, endearing and adventurous all at the same time.
I think this is my weirdest review yet, and not at all good at capturing exactly what I'm thinking about this book. The result, however, is the same: if you have even a passing interest in dogs, read this book.