Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dogs of War

The holidays loom on the horizon, time gets tight, and I find my reading habits drift toward quick, comfort reads to hold me until I can get to the "real" things in my pile. I've started four or five books in the past month that I truly want to savor but when I need a quick narrative fix I hit the graphic novel pile. Again.

Dogs of War is exactly what it declares itself to be: three stories of dogs that have served in US Armed Services. "Boots" is the Red Cross rescue dog helping ID bodies outside the trenches during WWI; "Loki" is stationed in Greenland during WWII, a sled dog with a wild spirit waiting for the right master; "Sheba" did her tour of duty in Vietnam where the bond between her and her trainer becomes the key that helps heal the vet once he's stateside. The narrative for each dog's story is distinct, the mood and feel of each war vastly different from the one before, free of the politics of the wars themselves. The stories stand as a testament to loyalty, bravery, and faithfulness of man's best ally. Or in this case, a soldier's closest comrade.

The first story, "Boots," benefits from being set on the front lines just before the fabled Christmas truce of 1914. In addition to Boot's history, we get plenty of slices of life in the trenches before a break in the fighting for a moment of humanity amid the hostilities. Boots' story would probably be enough on its own to make this collection, but the added placement in history makes it stand out above the other two stories. In some ways it might have been better to end with this story -- the stories are told chronologically, though they don't necessarily need to be told that way.

"Loki" gains the benefit of being a story rarely told in World War 2 history. Set in Greenland at a time when US and German forces her establishing bases and weather stations, the focus primarily on Loki's conversion from undisciplined sled dog to rescue companion almost completely ignores the historical elements. This might fall under the category of reviewing a book that wasn't written, but I really wanted to know more about what was going on in Greenland! Of the three stories, this was alternately the most unique and the thinnest in terms of narrative.

"Sheba"is a story as complicated as the Vietnam war and the reaction to that war at home. In trying to find meaning in a nation itself divided, a soldier haunted by the memory of his canine partner doesn't find a happy ending when he tries to return to society, though it's clear that Sheba holds the key to his emotional recovery down the road. The flashback narrative partnered with a story of trying to fit in as viewed from a neighbor kid in a trailer park is rich and begging to be a book of its own. Not that the story here is in any way lacking, but it is gritty and less remote than the other stories, so the connection for readers may be stronger here -- grandparents who can tell stories like this first-hand. 

The book does not advocate for or against war, its politics sit relatively neutral though clearly the stories are told from an American viewpoint appropriate to each era. To be honest, I've never understood the appeal of war stories except in how they illuminate and elevate the better parts of humanity amid its worst moments.

There is something about the art and pacing that reminded me of Nick Abadzis' biography of Laika that came out a few years ago. The difference comes in that the stories in Dogs of War are told as external narratives while Laika delved partly into the psychology of what it meant to be a rescued stray at the hands of researchers during the space race.  That said, both books paired together would make an awesome gift for a dog-loving boy into graphic novels.

Dogs of War
by Sheila Keenan
illustrated by Nathan Fox
Graphix / Scholastic 2013

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