June 10, 2024


By David Wroblewski
Review by
David Wroblewski’s second novel, Familiaris, leaps back two generations from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle to follow John Sawtelle and his wife Mary as they develop the first generations of an amazingly sensitive breed of dogs.
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It has been 16 years since David Wroblewski published his bestselling first novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. An elemental tale of family strife in Wisconsin’s north woods, Edgar Sawtelle charmed readers with its depiction of the effort of multiple generations to create a magnificent breed of dog that was both companionable and wise. The novel garnered rave reviews in national publications, was an Oprah pick and has been called a modern day classic.

Wroblewski’s second novel, Familiaris, shares many of the characteristics—positive and less so—of his first. The new novel leaps back two generations to tell the story of John Sawtelle, who, with his wife Mary and the men he manages to cajole into his enterprises, develops the first generations of the amazingly sensitive dogs.

We meet John in 1919 when he is about to get fired from his job at the Kissel Automotive Company in Hartford, Wisconsin (an actual manufacturer). Recently married to Mary, John has found a farm for sale near the town of Mellen on a puppy-related excursion north. John is a self-designated efficiency expert, with a love of detail he puts to use throughout his life as a dog breeder. After being fired in dramatic fashion, he convinces his pal Elbow, a master tinkerer and woodworker, and his frenemy Frank, an addicted, wounded veteran, to join Mary and him in pursuing his next big idea on the new farm.

The rest of Familiaris unfolds over 980 pages, sometimes with storm and thunder. There is, for example, an electrifying depiction of an epic forest fire in Wisconsin (an actual event) that involves the birth and survival of Ida, a magical sprite who intervenes at crucial points in the tale. In other passages, the story feels becalmed, drifting on a light jocular tone until the wind again rises. In the lulls, questions arise. Would Mary really be so jaunty as the lone woman amid all the angst and testosterone of the early years in Mellen? Why do the couples’ sons drop into the story from nowhere as fully formed high school graduates?

Though at times there seems to be something missing, prompting one to wonder if a future volume will reveal more, the energy Wroblewski draws from his love of the landscape and history of Wisconsin, his birth state, transmutes into enough high voltage narrative and inventiveness to keep readers with him through flatter moments.

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By David Wroblewski
ISBN 9798212194297

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