Review of Fighting for Space
Amy Shira Teitel’s Fighting for Space: Two Pilots and their Historical Battle for Female Spaceflight, is a superb read and I give it 4.5 of 5 stars. Nonetheless, this is oddly one of the more difficult reviews that I have come to write.
The tale revolves around two women’s parallel life journeys as they fight to become and succeed as pilots (albeit a generation apart) and that collide over differing perceptions around the role for women in the space programme. The story is both gripping and engaging. The author does a masterful job of finding intersection points between these women’s lives and ethos’.
The nature of a dual biography has challenged many historians. It often comes off as contrived or forced. Shira Teitel’s offering suffers neither of these. It is a measured and colourful telling of the lives of Jackie Cochran, and Jerrie Cobb (Jackie and Jerrie) skilfully related alongside a more comprehensive narrative. The book boldly demonstrates the constant challenges these women faced in male-dominated pursuits. As a very early aviator and eventual and repeated world record holder over decades, Cochran’s upbringing was particularly harsh. Her eventual successes, both personal and professional, are a testament to an amazing individual. Her close friendship with luminaries such as Amelia Earhart and Lyndon Johnson reinforces that she travelled in both exciting times but that she also was a woman who rose above adversity to control her destiny. She took control of her life and seemed to have sought every opportunity to help shape other’s futures. It is a tribute to her clear and focused perseverance and strong will that she mastered many professions and lived a life of constant self-challenge. She enjoyed the beneficial happenstance of marrying a man that made her dreams financially possible. That he was able and willing to use his connections to the most powerful men in government, military and private enterprise is raised by the author as contributing to Cochran’s success. Their’s must have been a unique marriage, but this is not the subject of this book.
The other protagonist (I am not convinced that you do have to pick teams) Jerrie Cobb, had a somewhat less challenging upbringing. Despite having an opportunity to similarly ally herself with a life partner that may have made her journey easier, Cobb makes a decision not to. These life choices make for an intriguing contrast, but this point of similarity is more eluded to by the author than explicitly explored. Cobb’s similarly dogged personality is vividly painted. With both protagonists, you genuinely feel you get to know them. I have read fiction where I have not found the characterisation as well-executed, so again much credit to Shira Teitel.
The author contextualises the broader history of flight and women’s role through these combined biographies and the introduction of a variety of other characters vital to the history and the narrative. As a reader you do have a sense that you come to know many of them – seemingly personally.
However, this does raise questions over how one comes to judge this superb book. The author has been transparent and open in stating that she is attempting to right a perceived wrong – the fact that women were, and continue to be, denied opportunities that are open to males. In this Shira Teitel delivers her message and transcends gendered reading biases.
However, if you sense some hesitation in my writing, it is because one of the stylistic editorial decisions made – and one that troubled my reading of it. This is what challenged my writing of this review. My criticism here is subjective and personal and slightly professional (probably pedantic to many). I expect that to make the book (I keep wanting to write novel) more engaging and more of a story than a drier recitation of facts Shira Teitel decided to jettison surnames and relate the tale through first names. The challenge this posed to me is that it implies a first name basis in relationships and thus, something that often wasn’t there. Although Cobb met President Kennedy once I don’t suspect Jerrie wrote to Jack. Writing that Jerrie wrote to President Kennedy is both informative, appropriate and I don’t think it detracts from the personalisation of the tale. At times the singular use of first names just becomes confusing. This stylistic decision evoked personal foibles with me professionally. I suppose I struggle with the line between writing scholarship and writing from the heart myself – and am probably struggling with this right now. Maybe these writing styles are reconcilable. However, many aspects of scholarly presentation exist to respond to some of these subjectively conscious or unconscious implications of style. When my students complete a literature review or recount history, many less experienced writers may write “Winston (Churchill) made a speech in the house and then spoke to his buddy Clement (Atlee) as mentioned by Tony (Burton – author) in his book”. They are gently reminded that it is proper to use surnames unless you actually know a person and it also gives proper respect. In the choice to refer to all characters in this novel by their first names, I am sometimes left confused and often troubled. Jack is President Kennedy. Lyndon is President Johnson. Jim is Nasa Director Jim Webb and Randy is the founder of the Lovelace Clinic. Although Jackie Cochrane saved LBJ’s life and I suspect may well have called him Lyndon, I am pretty sure that the author met neither. Moreover, the use of surnames would aid clarity in so many places that I occasionally tried reading passages by replacing these first names with titles and surnames. For me, this would have improved clarity – and not implied familiarity that may not have existed between the characters, let alone with the author.
Although I suspect – as I cannot find any other mentions of this choice – it was done to make the story more engaging. I found it an odd and distracting choice – mainly because my befuddled mind was confused but also because of implicit relationship signalling that we have come to rely on when reading history especially. I wonder about the editorial discussion between the author and her editor in this regard. It could be argued that referring to the two protagonists by their first names would have personalised the tale sufficiently. I feel that this limitation would have made it equally engaging, more readable and less confusing at times – at least for me. I thoroughly enjoyed her previous work which adhered to this more conventional practise. It may well be just fine for others, and I absolutely applaud pushing the envelope and embracing experimentation – it just didn’t work for me. I was frustrated with myself in reading, to have been so troubled. I am equally frustrated in dwelling on it in this review – but in writing, I tease it out for myself.
Does Shira Teitel find herself in Cochran I wonder? I have a sense that she does find many parallels in Cochran’s triumphs. I come to this book, as a fan of her VintageSpace YouTube videos (and also of her previous book, Breaking the Chains of Gravity). She is a talented raconteur both on screen and in print. She has a unique talent for making the complex understandable and also boldly broaching subjects that deserve attention in her own quirky and personal way. She is passionate about both spaceflight, science and feminism – feelings that she demonstrably shares with Cochran and I wonder how much of herself she writes into the Cochran story. How much do you write out of the story around supporting characters and their roles in your own life?
Additionally, I am curious about the omission of the role of religion in Cobb’s life. There are mere hints at her religious devotion in the story. One senses from her eventual career as a missionary pilot and in her letters to Cochran that this was a strong driving force in her life. Yet this observation occurs late in the relating of her life story. The literary exchanges between Cochran and Cobb suggest that this is a substantial part of her person. There are editorial choices made to fashion the tale, but this does strike one as a merely hinted at but left unexplored aspect of her life and character.
The depth of the challenges faced by both Jerrie Cobb and Jackie Cochran in their quests to control their destinies and to fight the bonds that prevented them from achieving their dreams is brilliantly recounted in Fighting for Space. It’s a great title, and the author is mostly transparent throughout in sharing her intentions in writing. She makes every effort to flag any liberties she takes in recounting what is a historical and real tale told in a slightly experimental fashion. Amy Shira Teitel succeeds in delivering an engaging and intensely impassioned story. It informs and quite possibly allows herself the opportunity to influence the future for women in space and in other future endeavours. More power to her and I look forward to her next writing and broadcasting.