Whenever I read a new space book, I always judge it in two ways. First, does it pass the typical standards of a good nonfiction book: Is it well-written? How is the editing? Is it historically accurate? The second aspect I look at is the material. Does the book bring anything new to light? Does it keep the same tired secondhand sources to a minimum, and does it try to break new ground?
After I read Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club, I can easily say that the book passes both criteria with flying colors.
The book tells the story of the astronaut wives from the space race era; previously, their story has been told fleetingly, in brief anecdotes and chapters of other space books. This is the first time that they have been given the spotlight.
The book is an emotional roller coaster. One of the best aspects of this book is that you begin to root for the women. I became caught up in their stories; I laughed at the many funny stories, felt genuine anger when a wife received threatening notes from a stalker, and cried at their losses. (Oh, the losses. As a NASA nerd, I knew beforehand about all of the deaths in the astronaut corps that would take place; yet I teared up each time.)
When I told a friend that there was a new book about the astronaut wives, her first response was, “Wow, that sounds depressing.” She had seen the wives episode of From The Earth to the Moon and automatically assumed that the book would be a sob sister fest. Quite the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gut-wrenching topics in here: suicide attempts, spousal betrayal, alcoholism, and so forth. But what makes the book so remarkable is the wide range of emotions. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (an overwhelmed LIFE reporter’s visit to the Bormans, for instance), as well as terrific anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of their strange new lives. By the end of the book, you will bond with these women, because you will feel that you have “experienced” so much with them. The wives are not the perfect women portrayed by LIFE, and they are not some caricature of an embittered betrayed woman. Rather, they deal with very human problems in a very difficult environment; normal women who were forced to become superwomen.
One of the best things about this book: I learned so much. It’s clear that the author was able to talk to the wives and relatives and took advantage of that opportunity. Roughly every other page had a fact I didn’t know, or a story I had never heard. This quality alone would automatically make this book one of my favorites.
The Astronaut Wives Club is outstanding in many ways: It covers new ground, tells stories that need to be told, and wraps all of this in a terrific read. It is a long-overdue chapter to the story of the space race, and to the story of women in America.