Dead dog books used to be a dime a dozen. Time was a kid couldn’t walk into a bookstore without getting whacked over the head with “Old Yeller”, creamed in the kisser by “Sounder”, and roughed up royally by “Where the Red Fern Grows”. Recently, however, dogs don’t die as often as all that. You could probably concoct some magnificent sociological explanation for this, citing changes in the political and emotional landscape of our great nation leading to the decrease in deceased literary pups, but as I see it, a good dead dog story is as hard to write as an original paper on Moby Dick. What else is there to say? Man’s best friend dies and everyone feels bad. In this jaded culture it would take a pretty steady hand to find a way to write a dead dog tale that touches us deeply. Not a dog person myself, I direct your attention today to Nick Abadzis. I don’t know how he did it. Laika, the world’s most famous real dead dog (a close second: the dead pooch of Pompeii), is now presented to us in a graphic novel format. Though I prefer cats through and through, “Laika” the novel grabs your heart from your chest and proceeds to dance a tarantella on the remains. The best graphic novels are those books whose stories couldn’t have been told any other way. “Laika” has that honor.
Her story was more than just her own. It encapsulated a vast range of people, many of whom you may have never heard of. As the book begins we see a man named Korolev leaving a Russian gulag in a freezing night. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik and his success is without measure. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Khruschev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month. Enter Laika. An unwanted pup, abused and abandoned on the street, she’s eventually caught and taken to the Institute of Aviation Medicine. There she is one of many dogs, trained for flight travel. Laika bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. As it stands, however, no dog is better suited for space travel and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return. Abadzis deftly describes the people who care for the little dog and the process by which she was ultimately abandoned and killed by both science and Cold War mechanics.
I admit it. You’d think that at this point I’d have learned to trust the First Second imprint of Roaring Brook Press. In the past two years they’ve managed to churn out consistently engaging, entertaining, fascinating graphic novels. But when I heard that they were doing “Laika” I was incredulous. You work as a children’s librarian long enough and you see far too many complex issues simplified and sad stories made light, all in the name of the kiddies. I looked at “Laika” and wondered whether or not the book would even touch on her death. I thought to myself that maybe the author would put it in an Afterword or something. I mean, what child/YA GN is going to actually show a dog die? After finally finishing “Laika”, you will be pleased to hear that I gave myself a rousing series of slaps to the face. The death of the dog is practically the point of the entire enterprise from the book’s start.
Laika’s entire story, as conceived by Abadzis, is heartbreaking but there are certain moments towards the end that I found particularly easy to identify with. When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help. That she’s scared and uncomfortable and just wants to get out and play. Anyone who has ever owned a pet will be familiar with this feeling. When the pet is missing or in pain, it’s difficult to keep from emphasizing with it. How much worse then when the dog in question is imprisoned in a capsule and shot into the sky? Abadzis doesn’t just show Laika’s plight. He makes you feel it in the core of your being.
The art is interesting as well. For the most part Abadzis chooses to maintain a simplified cartoony style. At moment of great importance, however, he will make the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. In terms of visual storytelling this is a remarkably interesting choice. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes vastly realistic. Other portions of the book were just as interesting. Sometimes scenes will be black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they’re vast two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams the lines that make up a panel will grow soft and colorful. There are all kinds of interesting stylistic choices taken in this book if you’re just willing to look for them. As with any good graphic novel, these choices make up a significant portion of the storytelling as well.
I am happy to report that at the end of this book you will find an extensive Bibliography, replete with book, video, and Internet sources. Abadzis obviously took a great deal of time researching his subject, a fact mentioned in an Afterword by Alexis Siegel. He has gone from, “the stacks of the British Library to Korolev’s house in Moscow.” These facts are then combined with fictional details and the result is this book. To what extent does he hold himself accountable for accuracy? To my delight, Abadzis includes a final Author’s Note that I’ve seen in children’s books before, but that always amuses me when I spot it again. To quote: “In this book, all phases of the moon depicted on specific dates are accurate to the day – although I may have erred on the side of drama about the time of moonrises.” Beautiful.
The last page of this book contains a quote that offers a 1998 statement from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko. In it, he laments the way that Laika was misused. “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” It’s a dead dog book. Anyone who knows the story of Laika will be aware of that. But above and beyond the obvious this is an ode to dogs themselves. To the animals that we befriend and love and, ultimately, destroy. It’s also about history, humanity, and the price of being extraordinary. No one can walk away from this book and not be touched. Consider Nick Abadzis a name to watch from here on in.
On shelves now