LIGHT THIS CANDLE - NEAL THOMPSON

Book Review: Light This Candle
The Life Story Of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman
By Neal Thompson
Crown Publishing Company, New York
444 pages Hardcover $27.50
Reviewed for Keeping Apace by Byron D. Varner , 4/2/04

In Light This Candle, author Neal Thompson presents a highly interesting and intriguing historical chronicle of the American space program through an “up close and personal” look at the astronauts - spotlighting Alan Shepard, the best of the original seven.

This book was a revelation to me in several ways, primarily about Alan, who with his family was a part-time member of the Lakeway community near Austin where my family and I lived for some 26 years. I must add that I knew him only superficially, however, not as a personal friend. My two sons dated two of the daughters and we knew his wife Louise through church affiliation. I also personally knew several others in the story and attended Alan's memorial service at the Houston Space Center.

My own naval aviation service roughly paralleled Alan's during WWII, completing our flight training at NAS Corpus Christi within the same year.

When one knows something personal about the subject of a biography, there is a tendency to judge the entire story on the accuracy of presenting those particular known facts. While lacking in a few areas he didn't understand, such as Christian Science, the author generally passed the test.

As one who didn't know Alan well - and according to the author there were many in that same category that were with him on a regular basis - I noted in the book's Bibliography that Thompson never personally interviewed either Alan or Louise Shepard. Thus his story relies entirely on hearsay evidence of those who knew them or worked closely with Shepard.

That tends to be a tricky road to the truth because of divergent opinion based on personal likes and dislikes of Alan Shepard - particularly among the original seven who, for the most part, were “competitive cutthroats” vying for the honor of who would be the first one in space. According to the author, Alan led the pack in that regard - but it also was a two-way street.

Thompson's historical research was quite thorough, and much of it based on access to official records, yet his hearsay research seemed excessive in Shepard's shortcomings. Not until the final chapters did he praise more than he damned. The truth about Alan Shepard is more likely somewhere in the middle.

Nonetheless, this story is a great read historically and Thompson generally keeps your interest at a relatively high level throughout the book.

No history is totally accurate, particular when written through hindsight that depends on varied opinions, but this book is probably closer to the truth than was Tom Wolfe's book that became the movie The Right Stuff - or any other of the many stories previously written about the astronauts.

NOTE: After this review went on line, I received the following E-mail from the author:
Hi Mr. Varner, just wanted to say thank you for the strong, balanced review of my bio of Alan Shepard. I apreciate Keeping Apace's interest in Shepard's story, and am grateful to be included in your list of reviewed books. It's interesting, too, to hear the perspective of a naval aviator, and someone who knew the Shepard family.
All the best,
Neal