"Through this beautiful, thoughtful exploration of the “Muttnick” refugee from Moscow’s cold streets and her journey to the edge of space, we’re offered an opportunity to take the measure of our own humanity."
Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog
Trinity University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-5953-4862-3 (also available as an e-book)
256 pgs., $24.95
October 30, 2018
To appreciate Laika’s Window, you have to understand what it really is. For a space geek—and I have been one my whole life—the initial expectation is a largely historical, linear, and chronological narrative tracing the desperate embryonic stage of the Cold War Space Race between the Russians and the Americans. Laika’s Window is so much more, although the details in Caswell’s work provide at least that. Let me explain.
This book is a rich bricolage of fact and metanarrative, an unlikely but deft mashup of Jim Lovell’s daring Apollo Thirteen and Robert Bly’s heavily allegorical Iron John. The details of Laika’s life as a stray on the cold Moscow streets, then her selection, training, and eventual spaceflight, is related in the laconic astronaut-speak worthy of NASA’s Mission Control; simultaneously, Caswell steps back and offers a broader perspective that questions our very humanity: Laika, and mankind’s largely offhand regard for her service and unwitting ultimate sacrifice, is truly a window through which Caswell shows readers a broader and equally significant view.
Through Laika’s space-capsule window, we speculate not only about the wonders of space flight that were her dying glimpse of existence but about the more mundane Earthly concerns of politics, scientific research, and the attendant overlay of sociopolitical and ideological competition that fueled the space race in the first place: what price, in terms of lives and treasure—human and animal—can we justify? What really mattered in the race: science or ideology? Was or is that ever worth the price?
Caswell delivers the space-geek goods, the physical deets of late-1950s rocket science in general, and the arcane history of animals in early space flight in particular. But what endures after reading the book is the plangent, lyrical, and careful regard Caswell has not only for the dog, but also for the introspection and reflection about the timeless struggle to balance science and ethics, progress and principles, the promise of the future and the obligations of our innate humanity. Lives always hang in the balance, and there is always a price to be paid.
“The dog is an extension of the human animal,” Caswell tells us, and later, “We cast a dog out beyond us to scout.” Yet Laika’s window is as much a mirror of humankind as it is a portal to the stars, and Caswell doesn’t let the reader off the hook with a simplistic and unknowing dog’s final view of the world. Rather, through this beautiful, thoughtful exploration of the “Muttnick” refugee from Moscow’s cold streets and her journey to the edge of space, we’re offered an opportunity to take the measure of our own humanity
Laika’s Window is a journey well worth taking, and a rewarding read.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kurt Caswell is a writer and professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, where he teaches intensive field courses in writing and leadership in the mountains and on rivers in the West. His books include Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, In the Sun's House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, which won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He is the co-editor of To Everything on Earth: New Writing on Fate, Community, and Nature. His essays have appeared in ISLE, Isotope, Matter, Ninth Letter, Orion, River Teeth, McSweeney’s, Terrain, and the American Literary Review. He lives in Lubbock, Texas.
Visit Kurt at www.kurtcaswell.com/