I need to preface this review with a warning: There will be spoilers. Although the events of the book are historical fact and therefore what happens isn’t really “spoiling” anything, I feel it’s better to err on the side of caution.
The story then switches to our furry friend Laika, and her path to the space program is a twisty one. She’s the unwanted puppy in a high-ranking government official’s home, then given to a young boy who doesn’t want her and abandons her on the street, then a stray who takes up with another dog for protection, and finally a captured dog taken to the space program. There, Laika is taken under the care of Yelena Dubrovsky, a lab technician whose job it is to care for the dogs in the space program and ensure they are healthy for training.
The story is a good one, but it takes awhile to get to the good bits. The beginning is a bit meandering – the parts with Korolev are not terribly interesting and can be a little confusing to readers who don’t fully understand the context. Laika’s long road to the space program is also a bit tiring at times, and I feel like Abadzis dwelled too long on that journey. I don’t think any parts should have been omitted, but perhaps condensing them a little would have helped.
Once we’re in the space program, things pick up quite nicely. Abadzis does an excellent job of showing what training the dogs undertook, who was involved in the process, and how those working with the dogs felt about their work. There’s a pretty intimidating culture of fear there – Yelena and a few of her fellow scientists and engineers often will not speak up about the welfare of the dogs for fear of reprisals. At the same time, the scientists and engineers also feel that the work they are doing is of vital importance (it is a precursor to sending a man into space, after all), and they’re not fundamentally opposed to it. This serves to humanize the characters. Instead of two-dimensional puppy-killers or bleeding-heart animal lovers, they’re fully realized people, and the reader, as a result, feels for them. And of course, we feel for the dog intensely. A book about a dog dying is never not going to be a tearjerker.