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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book review: The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

I was intrigued by the book from the moment I first heard about it. We often hear the adage "behind every great man, is a woman," but rarely do we hear that woman's story. This is the story of many, many of those women.

It starts with the Mercury Seven. These woman navigated never-before dreamed of roles as model housewives, media-savvy spokeswomen, and ideals to be emulated as almost no women ever has before (yes, I know First Ladies have those roles too, but they aren't foisted upon them quite so unexpectedly.) Some of them were shy, one (Annie Glenn) had a speech impediment, and some were thrilled to be in the limelight (see the one woman on the front cover who did not wear a solid pastel shirtdress as requested, but instead a lipstick-red rose-covered tight sheath). Some had strong marriages, others were falling apart but had to be toughed out due to NASA's opinion that a solid homelife was a crucial component for a successful astronaut (it was an unofficial but enforced policy). Then there were the Gemini Nine. Then the Gemini and Apollo Fourteen. At this point, the women had stopped feeling like a tight-knit group who supported each other but instead an unwieldy sorority of interlopers and competitors. Those later groups had some cohesiveness among themselves, but not much with the larger group of astronaut wives.

Still, they pulled together when tragedy struck (but only initially as NASA wanted those widows and their families gone ASAP so as not to serve as a reminder to the other families about the very real dangers of this job.) The stood by each other during each woman's own personal hell of enduring their husband's flight (some, like the wives of the Apollo 13 astronauts, obviously had a much tougher time than others.)

There were a lot of names to keep track of and I found I only could really retain the first group and then any of the ones whose husbands had become famous. But it wasn't an issue. (There is a listing in the front of the book of all of them if you want to keep track.) I was happy to hear all the different life stories and found it just wasn't necessary to keep track of who was who. It was surprising to me that only one of them developed a drinking problem given the pressures they were under, and not at all surprising that int he long term, the track record for the astronaut marriages was abysmal. The majority of these women were inspiring in their own ways, even if their biggest goals in life were to keep their home nice, their kids on track, and their husbands happy. But I did especially like the women who aspired to more (one was an airplane pilot herself!)

The book is told in a straightforward manner and does a good job of conveying the era and the stringent expectations of these wives (including how they weren't really allowed to acknowledge or experience the 1960s until they were nearly over.) I didn't get to know much about NASA, but neither did the wives and it was appropriate to be somewhat in the dark in that area. It wasn't earth shattering nor did I learn a lot, but I enjoyed my time with Rene, Jo, Marge, Marilyn, and the rest.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

1 comment:

Kay said...

I liked this book a lot too. I think I told you before that I am a big fan of the movie The Right Stuff. So, even though I know that much is fictionalized, I felt I knew at least the Mercury wives. Found this so interesting. I love books about First Ladies too.