Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: Laika

Author and Illustrator: Nick Abadzis
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Release Date: September 4, 2007
Pages: 208
Source: Borrowed from the library
Why I read it: I wanted to read more about Laika and the Soviet Space Program.

What I thought: This book had popped up as a recommended book on Goodreads a while ago, but I ignored it, and maybe I should have, because learning about Laika has been very heartbreaking for me.

I first learned about Laika this week and scoured the internet to find all the information I could about her. There's not much, unfortunately, but I thought I would read this book, since I heard it was well researched, even if not everything in the book was true. She was the first dog and first living creature put into space/orbit. Unfortunately, because of political pressure, the engineers in the program didn't have enough time to formulate a plan to bring her home and she died in space after a few hours. This book is about Laika, her fictionalized keeper, Yelena, Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet Space Program and Gazenko, one of the scientists involved with Laika.

Laika gets a back story, and while this is obviously speculation, we can never imagine Laika's life before she was in the space program, these scenes were really tearjerkers for me. I thought I would not like the back story, but I think it added something to the overall story. Because there is not a lot of information on Laika, there has to be some speculation. I liked the scenes where she flew in people's dreams. Like she was already ready to meet her destiny. Not to say that I enjoyed her death, but I thought the scenes of her flying, in dreams and in space were beautifully rendered and captured her spirit.

The character of Yelena and her relationship with the dogs was a big tearjerker for me, too. I like how Abadzis didn't anthropomorphize Laika, but had Yelena speaking for her. All animal lovers do this to an extent and I read an interview with Abadzis where he made this point as well, that we as humans project their emotions and experiences on animals. The trust between her and Laika was heartbreaking, as well. I think the afterword put it best, "the personal stories, both canine and human, that bring Laika alive as a meditation on the meaning of destiny and the fragile beauty of trust." That, to me, is what the book was about. Korolev and Laika both had a destiny and Laika trusted her keepers and they sent her on a one-way ticket to space. Not to criticize the scientists, as at least one of them, Gazenko, regretted the experiment. They really were doing something they believed was for the good of science, but I think the book shows how they grappled with it, that maybe it wasn't an easy decision for them.

As stated before, I liked the depiction of her flying into space, while it was sad, I think it also depicted that she finally had a sort freedom as she flew into oblivion. And when she and Sputnik II returned to earth, she left a mark. I thought ending with the blackness was beautiful and it contrasted nicely with the opening all in white.

Overall, this book was amazing. I think Abadzis captured all the conflicting emotions about Laika and the Soviet space program. I cried through most of the book.

A quote from Gazenko captures everything best: "Work 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 shouldn't have done it... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

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