Ok, so truth be told, the love story was almost entirely on my side, since what more could I ask for than a great novel featuring a pack of dogs as a central element in the story? Edgar Sawtelle is a mute boy who lives in a symbiotic relationship with the dogs his family has been breeding since his grandfather’s time. The first half of the novel describes the struggles of Edgar’s parents, Trudy and Gar to have children, and then Edgar’s early childhood on the farm. When Edgar is born, Almondine finds her true purpose in life and becomes his constant companion, since she is the only Sawtelle dog living in the house with the family, though she also has an active role in helping train the younger dogs. The dogs are not only the Sawtelles’ main source of income, they are also treated much like beloved extended members of the family. We gradually learn how this unusually perceptive breed of canines came into being through the dedication of Edward’s grandfather, who envisioned the ideal canine companion and spent many years crossing dogs he chose according to his very own decidedly unconventional ideas.
When he is old enough, Edgar is given his own litter of pups to deliver and care for, a task which has always been carefully carried out by his father and which the boy immediately takes to heart. The first sings of trouble arrive when Edgar’s uncle Claude, fresh out of prison, comes back to the family home. A hard drinker, he and his older and much more serious brother Gar fight and bicker, until a physical altercation breaks out and Claude leaves them, tires screeching on the dirt road. Things take a tragic turn when Gar dies very suddenly as his son Edgar helplessly looks on. Then Trudy falls dangerously ill with pneumonia, leaving Edgar with the heavy responsibilities of the farm, and though he struggles to make things work, a serious incident forces them to call Claude for much-needed help. To Edgar’s utter dismay, Trudy and Claude quickly become lovers, even as Edgar has reasons to suspects his uncle of murder. Things go from bad to much, much worse, until Edgar must flee the farm, taking with him a number of dogs from his litter.
Together they embarks on a long and difficult journey, during which the fugitives hide away in the woods and are constantly on the brink of starvation. Edgar’s journey with the dogs constitutes the better part of the second half of the novel, and seemed at times overly long, though with hindsight, I now see that this portion of the story was necessary to establish just how deeply the boy and his dogs come to rely on each other, and how Edgar eventually comes to encourage the dogs to make their own choices. I was initially disappointed with the tragic dénouement, though it revealed, if there was still any lingering doubt, that these dogs were not mere companions or secondary characters in the story, but protagonists in their own right.
I should say that I had decided I liked this book before I had even read the first line, simply because I knew that dogs were prominent in the story, and in that sense I was amply gratified and am not ashamed to say that this review is not the least bit impartial, if ever these can be such a thing as an impartial review. This is the kind of tale that leaves one with countless affecting moments to savour and linger on, long after the last page has been turned.