Review | Rocket Girl: the story of Mary Sherman Morgan by George D. Morgan

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I really was excited to read Rocket Girl. It seems like the kind of thing that’s right up my alley. Lady scientist? Check. Historical timing? Check. Not too long? Check.

Mary Sherman Morgan was born to a poor farming family in North Dakota in the 1920s. She ran away from her family’s farm after finishing high school in an attempt to gain her degree in chemistry. Before she could finish, her life was diverted by World War II. In the next few years, she would go into the job field testing explosive chemical cocktails, leading to a major contribution in the creation of rocket fuel. Her work would be pivotal to the United States efforts to put a satellite in space following von Braun’s emigration to the US and the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik.

Mary Sherman Morgan has a very interesting life story. Her route to scientific contribution was far from the norm, including a non-traditional education and scandal.

Unfortunately, I think her story would have been better off in the hands of someone other than her son, George D. Morgan.

I wish I had known that the story was written by her son earlier, though. I didn’t realize until I’d started reading. The premise had been enough to hook me. I have a lot of problems with biographies written by family members. Mostly, family members are often not trained to do the research that makes for a thorough biography, but, worse, family members often tell the story they wish they knew rather than the one evidence supports.

George Morgan begins the story with the preface that his mother was extremely private. She didn’t keep records, didn’t tell stories, didn’t take photographs. This would make her story hard for him to tell. But, he states, he had a personal mission: to tell him mother’s story and give her the credit she never took for herself.

The story is told largely in a narrative form. This is one of my biggest problems. While writing Mary’s story, Morgan chose to place it in narrative, but didn’t integrate his citations into the narrative. So, scenes with narrative and descriptions often come off as being more imagined than factual.

The story seems rife with speculation and a kind of willful ignorance of what people were telling Morgan. Worse still, that speculation is often dropped, unsupported, or outright contradicted. At one point, Morgan speaks about his mother, wondering if she had some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. He claims that this explains her behavior towards him. His mother’s colleagues and husband all claim to have never seen any evidence of it. He relays that his sisters were rather dubious of the claim, but still says that his research into OCD matches with the behaviors his mother exhibited. He never says what these may have been or shows obsessive behaviors in her story. The book is riddled with things like this.

I was left wondering how much of his story was similarly unsupported and how much evidence was ignored.

Mary’s story is sandwiched between the stories of von Braun and Sputnik. This would have been great had I not already been fairly familiar with the history of space flight and if it didn’t absolutely dominate the text. Only about a third of the story was actually about Mary. Moreover, there’s a good deal of the story that is dedicated to Morgan’s process of getting a play he wrote about his mother to be produced. There’s very little about the company Mary worked for, how they became involved in the United States space missions, or how Morgan came to know, work for, and contribute to their experiments. It just was an absolutely unsatisfactory balance for me.

I do think that there’s a contribution here, though. Mary Sherman Morgan, by the accounts of her colleagues, contributed greatly to the development of the chemical cocktail used in rocket fuel. Perhaps by bringing her story to light, a more equipped biographer will pick up her story.

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