Sandra Lee (author)
Allen&Unwin, Australia: 2011
ISBN: 9781742375571 13+
Genres: animals, biography, factual text, military, non-fiction
Issues: animal welfare, war
The Explosives Detection Dogs (EDDs) of the Australian Army are highly respected, much loved members of military bases to which they're assigned. The work done by an EDD and its handler saves lives. So when Sarbi, a Newfoundland-Labrador cross, goes missing in action in Afghanistan it is not only her handler who is devastated.
Missing for thirteen months after being involved in one of the fiercest encounters with insurgents in Kandahar, it is feared that Sarbi might be lost forever but she is a remarkable dog with more lives than a cat and she has some highly specialised and very determined troops looking for her.
Dog stories are always appealing because of the unique relationship that humankind has so long had with canines. Sarbi's story is remarkable because she is obviously an especially gifted dog. Unfortunately Sandra Lee's own love of our furry friends rather overwhelms the early chapters of this book, which tend to be somewhat overwritten in her determination that the reader will understand just how wonderful dogs are in general: 'We are driven by an inexplicable primal urge to pat the soft little upturned head, punctuated to perfection by beautiful, beseeching liquid eyes, a tiny wet nose sniffing, sniffing, sniffing, and a panting pink tongue insistently licking with unrestrained pleasure, to taste, to touch, to learn and to know.' (p7)
Thankfully this rather gushing prose is pruned down in Part Two (Ch7), where Sarbi's military training begins. From this point the book is – with occasional lapses – considerably more concise and less cloying. The description of how EDDs are trained is fascinating and increases the respect the reader probably already holds for dogs in general and in particular those working dogs that protect humans so skilfully. Equally interesting is the information Saving Private Sarbi provides about the history of dogs in the military and, more generally, the work done by our troops in Afghanistan.
Apparently there was some reluctance in the higher echelons of the military to allow the book to be written due to the necessary description of the working practises of the 'Doggies' (EDDs and their handlers) and the conflicts in which they were involved in Afghanistan. While that's understandable, the book does give the reading public a much needed insight into the conditions under which all those soldiers in Afghanistan have been working during their rotations. News reports do not cover this, making it easy for the public to pass simplistic judgements on an extremely complex situation. Saving Private Sarbi doesn't just celebrate a truly remarkable dog and her achievements but also encourages readers to recognise and respect the difficult work being done by the men and women who serve our country in this way.
Sandra Lee's long experience as a journalist ensures that Saving Private Sarbi is both a lively narrative that gives faces and strong personalities to the explosive detection dogs, their handlers and the various troops they have served and protected. Yet this narrative is soundly based in extensive research, including personal interviews and patient examination of books, articles, websites and media releases. Despite its somewhat irritating beginning, Saving Private Sarbi is an enjoyable and interesting book that will appeal to a wide readership, introducing us to a truly heroic animal who served her nation as loyally as our own pets so often serve their all-too-often oblivious humans.
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