books,  history

Racing the Moon, gifted children and Nestbeschmutzer

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Racing The Moon by Alan ArmstrongThe book: Racing the Moon

The book I’m currently reading to my children is called Racing the Moon by Alan Armstrong. Set in 1947 the book is wonderfully sophisticated. The main story is of a brother and sister, Alex and Chuck. Alex is 11 and idealizes Ameilia Earheart. Chuck is 17 and, booted out of college, drifting with a bit of a suicidial wreckless streak. They befriend an army scientist Captian Ebbs. Captain Ebbs is working on food for the space program, so she’s a natural fit with the two space obsessed youngsters and can help guide them. Other threads to the story is the story of Captian John Smith and the Nazi-turned-American scientist Wernher von Braun.

Alex and Chuck have a tree fort they call their moon station, and I love how the adults (Ebbs and von Braun) take the moon station seriously, pointing out the mistakes such as a solar heater for boiling water (How can you boil water in space? You can’t.) or the presence of a compass (there is no North in space). Problems are pointed out as things to be solved. Adults are working on solutions to all sorts of problems and kids can too. The youngster’s playhouse is the model on which they can explore the implications of space travel.

In Racing for the Moon the son Chuck is desperately in need of help. Nowadays he’d probably be considered twice exceptional (another way of saying gifted but also with a learning disability) and one of the challenges he faces is learning to value something enough to slow down and do the hard work it takes to get there, even while the hard work seems boring and beneath him. He is lucky to have adults around him who value him enough to give him the help he requires. One of the lines I like in the book, spoken by one of the adults to Chuck’s sister about him is: “There is a big difference between his doing anything – the anything that comes into his head – and his doing the something I need done, which he would probably find boring after his experiences so far.”

While the book doesn’t necessarily require much knowledge of WWII, John Smith, Amelia Earhart or the space race having a bit of information about the various topics is helpful. The book’s setting is a rich realistic one not the generic setting of a typical middle school book. One of the chapters is named after Icarus, who tries to fly too high, and at some point there’s discussion of the meaning of a latin phrase. The book is not condescending towards young people but inspiring.

The book first mentions Wernher von Braun in the context of experiments on mice to see if living things can survive the type of speed required for going into space, and as I read the section aloud to my children I wondered whether his experiments were confined to mice. Could he have been one of the Nazi’s involved in human experiments? I didn’t want to mention the subject to my children but was pleased when the book brought up the story of his past and his use of slave labour.  (As far as I have been able to find googling, he wasn’t implicated in experiments on humans, though he did use slave labour from the concentration camps in his work in Germany, and I’m not going to try to evaluate whether he helped in having them tortured or not.)

My thoughts afterwards…

The topic of Nazi’s came up in a recent Slate Article about the Nazi Anatomists and how a German Dr. Hermann Stieve’s research of executed female political prisoners forms the underlying ‘science’ of the American Republican’s ‘women don’t get pregnant from rape’ nonsense. The Slate article continues from there to talking about the problem of human tissue samples in German universitities left over from WWII autrocities, and how bits of their research are part of common scientific information: for example, the Pernkopf atlas includes pictures drawn from dissections of people executed by the Nazis. Aspects of the past linger with us, not just in people’s memories but in our science as well.

The space program is in some ways such a wonderful symbol of exploration and discovery, yet Apollo 11 was taken to the moon by Saturn V, one of Wernher Von Braun’s rockets and the space race itself was a part of the Cold War. The book and then the youtube videos we watched after about Wernher Von Braun has definately changed the way I look at space flight. I will never look at a picture of a rocket again without thinking about the idea that it is a transportation vessel atop a missile.

Or think further back, to the Industrial Revolution and the amazing speed of invention and invention joined at the same time to pollution, exploitation and the expansion of wage labour. There is not a moment of human history that isn’t marked with something nasty, and yet at the same time there’s wonder and creativity and beauty. The television serious  “Engineering an Empire” drives this home in some ways with the routine talk about the poor conditions or deaths of the labourers for any of the great monuments. Can we teach our children to see both the beauty and the wrong?

How do we apply the lessons today, looking at the reality that so much of what is happening today is still in some way connected with slave labor, exploitation and political problems? There’s a German word Nestbeschmutzer or one-who-dirties-the-nest for those who would bring up the dirty past. I think everyone in the western world needs to be Nestbeschmutzers in many ways, looking at the ways in which our past is shaped by wars and criminal things. Nothing is uncluttered.

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