This spellbinding debut novel set in the north woods of Wisconsin resonates with the reader on many levels. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a mystery, a coming-of-age tale and a deeply emotional exploration of the often inexplicable ties between dogs and their owners.

Starting with Edgar's grandfather in the 1920s, the Sawtelles have been dedicated to the breeding and training of dogs - a mission they have painstakingly carried out not by tracing pedigrees, but by a unique, intuitive method of tracking behavioral and personality traits. Edgar, Gar and Trudy Sawtelle's only child, is born mute, but he is perceptive beyond his years, and his ability to communicate with the kennel dogs using his own brand of sign language is uncanny.

Born at nearly the same time as Edgar is the dog Almondine, and they forge a heart-rending bond. Author David Wroblewski, who grew up not far from where the book is set, paints his characters with a keenly empathetic brush. His passages that revolve around human-dog relationships are especially memorable. Scene after scene etches itself in our minds, such as when Edgar races back to the house from his father's gravesite near the ceremony's end to retrieve Almondine, who had inadvertently been left behind. She sits her "wise haunches down," and together they watch the casket descend.

Wroblewski's seemingly bucolic plot takes a menacing turn when Edgar discerns foul play behind his father's sudden death. In addition, he is inwardly enraged by the attention his mother is showering on his uncle Claude - Gar's brother, with whom he had always been at odds. Edgar's dreams of his father become painfully realistic; he feels his presence as if all his father's own memories were being given, somehow, to him.

An accident for which Edgar feels partially to blame propels him, along with three of his dogs, into the surrounding Chequamegon forest, only sparsely dotted with tiny towns and isolated cabins. The struggle of this steadfast quartet to survive, and learn to trust not only each other, but strangers, constitutes a harrowing coming-of-age saga, culminating in Edgar's return home, and the violent, somehow preordained conclusion that awaits him. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an unforgettable debut - one to savor, to share, and even, despite its length, to re-read.

Deborah Donovan, a dog person, has spent part of each summer since childhood in the Chequamegon National Forest.

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