Book Review: The Time It Takes To Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean

I heard in interview on NPR where author Margaret Lazarus Dean stated that her novel The Time It Takes To Fall (2007) is about the “Challenger generation.” I certainly understood what she meant as the space shuttle Challenger disaster was a major event in my childhood and one that came right at the age where I was starting to have a greater understanding of the grown-up world.

Over two years from age 11 to 13, Dolores Gray narrates her life in a manner the emphasizes the priorities and concerns of a preteen. Dolores lives in Central Florida where her father and most everyone else’s works for NASA. She is obsessed with becoming an astronaut like her hero Judith Resnik and keeps a scrapbook of each mission. At school she has to negotiate the cliques and the likes of Elizabeth Talbot, the queen bee of the playground. She deals with boys such as Erik, a geeky but confident outcast, and Josh, a popular senior who is her first boyfriend. At home her father is laid off by NASA for long periods of time, and her mother leaves the family, maybe to have an affair with Erik’s dad. Dolores’ dreams of becoming an astronaut lead her to love physics and she’s able to advance to high school in the gifted and talented program. Then on January 28, 1986 the Challenger explodes in the sky over her school, an event changing her life in more ways the one. The title refers to the crew’s cabin which fell to the ocean killing all seven on impact, something not widely reported in the news. Dolores is able to calculate the time it takes to fall as a physics problem and ponders what those last minutes of life were like for the astronauts.

The novel certainly has things I can relate to, such as a youthful obsession with the space program, living as a latchkey child, and dealing with being at the low end of the schoolyard social caste. Not relevant to my life but written with honest emotion are parts about her mother moving out and possibly having an affair, discovering great love and talent in physics, and learning that boys find her attractive.

This is a good novel and I’d like to say well-researched because it seems full of so many facts about the Space Shuttle program. But on page 191 there is a glaring error referring to an earlier NASA disaser as “the Mercury accident.” That Dean doesn’t know that Grissom, Chaffee, and White died in the Apollo I fire when it should be easily verifiable is a bit unsettling. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the Space Shuttle. If Ms. Dean or her publishers read this, please have that error fixed for the next edition or the paperback.

Enough being a pedant. This is a good book. Read it.