Book Review: Rocket Girl

Rocket Girl:  The Story Of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist, by George D. Morgan

To begin with, this book is a factional/nonfiction novel by the author about his mother.  The writer first wrote a well-regarded play about his mother and the success of that play led him to find out more about his mother that served as a bit of a mystery novel that required some investigation into the dark personal history of the subject’s life.  In reading this book I was struck by the author’s interest in placing his mother’s life in a larger context of international competition during the Cold War.  Those readers with an interest in astronomy and rocketry [1] will find much in here to appreciate in terms of the author’s style as well as his interest in the way his mother’s research fit into the larger scheme of Cold War space exploration.  That said, this book explores some deeply unpleasant aspects of the subjects life and alludes to much that it does not state directly, which I will discuss in more detail towards the end of this review.  This book leaves the reader with an unsettling feeling about how much the author does not say given that which he does say.

The book as a whole is about 300 pages of material divided into twenty-six chapters.  The author begins with a look at his mother’s troubled childhood, with a lazy and alcoholic father and abusive and favored older brothers, leading to a state where she was not allowed to go to school for several years until some sort of government pressure induced the family unwillingly to let her travel by horseback while maintaining her heavy load of chores.  The account of the family is full of unpleasant things that her family did not abide like gifts and photographs and her unwillingness to return home even in the face of later troubles is striking.  After this the author looks at his mother’s abbreviated schooling, work in a WWII munitions plant, and her secret pregnancy before moving to her groundbreaking work after WWII while working for a private rocketry firm in Southern California and developing the fuel needed to power America’s first successful rockets under a series of tight restraints.  Meanwhile, the author adds in the context by looking at German-American and Soviet rocket designers facing their own dramatic lives in the face of political difficulties, ending the book with a look at the California Condor and the success of America’s rockets in the late 1950’s as the author’s mother retires from work to be a wife and mother.

Despite the triumph of determination and analytical skill shown by the book’s titular rocket girl, this book has some very ominous elements that are worthy of discussing and that make this book not as pleasant to read as would ideally be the case given the author’s obvious skill as a writer.  For one, the author discusses his mother as someone deeply troubled by mental illness, considering her to be someone who struggled with OCD as well as intrusive flashbacks from her traumatic childhood and who suffered struggles for a lifetime on these grounds [2].  The way that the author frames this abusive childhood allows the reader, if they are familiar with abusive families and how they operate, to extrapolate much that is not said.  Take, for example, a situation where an obviously bright child suffers from being in a family where alcoholism and physical and emotional abuse are extremely common and there is a tendency not to record things while building up a life full of secrets.  Who knows what else is going on that is not being talked about?  The way that the author’s mother found a relationship with someone who ran away when she was found pregnant in her desperation for love and intimacy is something that is framed as being far kinder than may have been the case initially, and this book hints at far deeper struggles than even the ones the author openly acknowledges that his mother faced in being a pioneer with a truly harrowing past.

[1] See, for example:

[2] In that light, the book’s opening lines are haunting:

“This is a story about a mother who never talked to her children. This is a story about a wife who rarely talked to her husband, though they were married for fifty-three years. This is a story of a woman who desperately wanted happiness but could never summon the strength to reach for it. This is a story of a woman who had a family that loved her, but who struggled to love them in return. This is a story about a woman whom people admired but could never get close to. This is a story of a woman who harbored many secrets and lived in daily fear that those secrets would one day be revealed. This is a story of a woman who took those secrets to her grave. This is a story about America’s first female rocket scientist. This is a story about my mother (11).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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