My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Any story involving a suffering or mistreated animal just rakes at my gut--I'm a sucker for that type of manipulation. I can't even watch Marley & Me even though I read the book when it first came out. I'm serious when I say I steadfastly refuse to even look at the screen if my girlfriend puts Marley & Me on television. I've always had dogs and have become wired to respond emotionally to them. Few other stories have come anywhere near generating those types of heavy emotions in me.
Books earning 5/5 stars because they evoke an emotional reaction from me is as good a reason as any for high praise. I praise this book, however, not because there is great artistic merit or style. It is a fair book if the story were not true. But it is true, and so the story of the little dog, Laika (a.k.a. Kudryavka), launched into space to die inside Sputnik II ripped me. I knew nothing about the use of dogs (or any animals) during the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America before reading the graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis.
To be fair, a percentage of the book is fictional. Abadzis does well to paint Laika a hero and builds a former life full of wicked men and women and loneliness and isolation. Which sets us up for how Laika dies, in cramped isolation and lonely. Actually, the cause of her grizzly death was stress and overheating. Her body circled the Earth for some time before Sputnik II disintegrated on its return to the atmosphere. I read that there was quite an outcry against the Soviets for this once the truth came out.
The story would work well in a middle school classroom as this is just the type of issue a middle school student likes to debate and wrestle: should we use animals for scientific advancement? Additionally, if we are around middle school students at all we know we hear the term "That's not fair!" repeatedly. Developmentally, the concept of fairness is important to young people. What happens to this little dog throughout its life will spur a lively debate in any middle school classroom.
Abandoned and abused at a young age, Laika, also experiences a savage attack and killing of another dog she grew close with. This book does not shy away from the issue of cruelty. Kids will also need to talk about that specific incident in the book.
The images in the story are not necessarily anything special and I glossed over many. However, because the core of the story is a small dog, the recurring images of her reminds us it is a living being. The images personalize it. The dog has a face, a smile, and eventually, someone who cares for it and loves it: Yelena Dubrovsky.
For as much as this is a story about the life of a dog sacrificed for science, it is also a human story. We see so many different types of treatment of animals in this story. Abadzis strength is balancing the cruelty with the kindness. Yet, it is the attachment between Yelena and Laika which takes center stage because in the end Yelena is forced to betray the dog she loves. This little dog who has had the most unfortunate existence, finally lands into the arms of human she can trust, and does trust.
Yelena's job was to care for and train all of the dogs used for experimentation in the Soviet space program. Eventually, Laika is hastily sent into space on Sputnik II. In order to properly beat the Americans, some corners had to be cut in the process. One such cut corner was there was no re-entry system created for Sputnik II. Laika was sent into space to perish so that the Soviets could learn what it would take for a human to survive during space travel.
A quote at the end of the graphic novel from 1998 by Oleg Grazenko, one of the leading Soviet scientists directly involved with Sputnik II, admits the waste of Laika's life:
Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.There are real images up on the internet of Laika as this is above all a graphic novel which introduces a moment in history. A moment which young people can use for some great conversation about science, ethics, loyalty, betrayal, propaganda, and the relationships humans forge with animals.
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