By Nick Abanzis
Heroes, it’s been said, come in many forms. The use of a scrappy dog as a protagonist has long been one of the most prominent illustrations of this point in American storytelling. But four-legged heroes are also nearly universally tragic. Perhaps its the collective memories of our pets that inspires this unfortunate trope—the sad fact is that, compared to humans, dogs don’t really live all that long, and the death of a pet is a nearly universal theme in our comings of age. Therefore, the bildungsroman, perhaps the most popular vessel for a dog story, cannot truly be considered complete until the death of the beloved pet.
Nick Abadzis does not seek to change this fact with Laika—in part because he has history to contend with. The dog’s death is, after all, an essential element in the story of the earth’s first space traveler. Rather, the author’s goal seems to be two-fold. Firstly, he explores whether her death was in vain. Secondly, he seeks to celebrate her life, by retelling what we know, and filling in the gaps with his own fictions.
The first count Abadzis leaves up to the reader, though judging from the emotionally wrenching note one which he ends the story, and the quote that closes the book (in part: “We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of that dog”), it seems clear where he stands on the subject. The sentiment is echoed by the great deal of empathy with which he handles his subject, from the happy begins of her life to an Oliver Twist-esque tale of rejection, and ultimately salvation at the hands of the same organization that will eventually sacrifice her life for the glory of an empire.
All the while, her desires manifest into dreams of returning to the hands of those who once cared for her—dreams of flight that bring feelings of comfort and home. Her tale as a stray also clearly parallels that of Sergei Korolev, set free from the gulag into a blizzard at the opening of the book. Korolev too has dreams of flight, though unlike the silent protagonist, he possess the means of achieving them, without putting his own life in jeopardy. It is he who christens Laika with her third and most well-known name (meaning “barker,” after he instinctual reaction upon seeing Korolev), and it is his brashness that ultimately ends Laika’s life.
There are moments in which Abadzis’s treatment of his subject matter is a touch heavy-handed, which may prove a turnoff for some readers—particularly those who have little invested in the lives of man’s best friend. Still, it’s a worthy portrait of a heroic dog whose legacy to most thus far has been little more than a footnote and a single famous picture.