Sometimes the importance of a story is inversely proportional to the quality of its telling. This is never a happy position, but it is better when the story is important. That sums up this book, intended as a history of Mary Sherman Morgan.
Mary, schooled late, a college drop-out, and a wartime ordinance factory employee, finds herself the only female in a pool of 900 male engineers (she is deemed a mere “analyst”, an engineer who hasn't graduated college) at North American Aviation in the 1950s. Yet she proves to have chemistry skills that far surpass her colleagues', and is charged with creating the liquid fuel for Wernher von Braun's Redstone rockets. Her Hydyne cocktail does the trick. She retires just as the moon missions heat up, on account of pregnancy.
Mary is one of the vast number of unsung engineers who made (and make) missions like that to the moon possible. Her visibility was compromised by a variety of factors: the pre-moon launches were controlled by the military; she had limited credentials; and she was a woman. The author, her son, does a great service in bringing her facts to light.
Unfortunately, there is little actually known about her. A dreadful childhood in Depression North Dakota, with potentially abusive parents whom she runs away from to attend college, a dark secret while she was in college, and much else, suggest a fractured personality who could not show affection for her children, nor kept any trace of her history. (Even when her son, the author, was playing with fuels for liquid-fuel rockets, Mary did not help…despite being one of the world's leading authorities on their fuels.) These tragedies are never too far from the main story.
Sadly, her secretiveness, the establishment secrecy, and the lack of records from a much older era (and institutions that have since vanished), leave the author relatively little fact to work with. Instead, he imagines her tale through the lens of creative nonfiction, always a fraught activity and especially so in weak writing hands. As a result the dialog is stilted, the action melodramatic, and for much of the book the reader wonders how he could know what he writes; only in an epilogue does he admit to his technique. Combine it with poor editing (what editor leaves in an analogy to gang rape
?) and you have a combustive cocktail of the sort that Mary might have concocted.
Despite all that, this remains a valuable book. It helps unearth a person who, though of minor historical importance, nevertheless overcome staggering, almost unbelievable odds, a hundredth of which would have floored most of us. Many, many millions of women worldwide face similar odds today, and don't enjoy the strokes of good fortune that let Mary shine (even if in the shade). It's a useful reminder of how much human potential we fail to tap with prejudices of various sorts. And it's a nice little tale about the early days of the space race.
HT +Kathi Fisler #bookreview