"My gramma’s like me. Wanna know what my gramma says? ... She says that before you were born, God told you a secret he didn't want anyone else to know."
That's a small girl talking to Edgar, a boy born mute who may carry a heavy secret in his heart, a secret that will lead to tragedy unless he finds a way to deal with his knowledge.
Spoiler alert: I'm going to start right off with the elephant in the room. This novel might be set in Wisconsin in the twentieth century, but it is very loosely based on Hamlet, right down to the characters' names (Trudy/Gertrude, Claude/Claudius, Forte/Fortinbras). If you have an aversion to Shakespeare, don't let that keep you from reading this. "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" can be enjoyed without knowing a line of Hamlet. It's a fictional how-to story of breeding and raising dogs. It's a gentle story of coming of age in Wisconsin. It's a page-turner, a thriller whose suspense builds to an exciting climax. It's all that and it's a modern retelling of Hamlet. Those familiar with the play will just have an extra level of satisfaction identifying the allusions.
What first attracted me to the story is its setting: the very real small town of Mellen, Wisconsin, on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest. The local references are many: the lumber industry history, the farm and iconic barn, the lakes and woods, John Dillinger's hideout, Leinenkugel beer, Wausau, Ashland, and Superior. But that's not what this novel is really about.
About half of the novel is devoted to telling the multi-generation story of breeding and raising the fictional breed of Sawtelle dogs. If you aren't a dog lover before reading this, you can't help but become one. But that's not what this novel is really about, either.
About halfway through the novel, the Hamlet plot begins to get rolling. The relationships between Edgar, his mother and father and uncle are complex. In response to a crisis, young Edgar runs away from home. During this time on the run, he learns a lot about himself, his dogs, his destiny. He returns home to face his demons. To modern audiences, the climax and conclusion might feel wrong. That's not how books today end. That's not the right fate for these characters. This is where knowing Hamlet might be for the best. Let's just say my grade for this book rose steadily over the course of the story. The climax and ending didn't bring it down a bit.