When local nature writer Don Lago began his newest book, his feet were firmly planted on the ground. He was still in the editing process of his then-most recent release “The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1969 River Journey,” whose focus lay primarily between the walls of the Grand Canyon. His mind, however, was on the next project and into the skies as he embarked upon his newest novel, “The Shadows Moving in the Moon’s Skull Eyes: A Vision of Apollo XI,” a retelling of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
The book has been on shelves less than a month now. It came out the same day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first touched down on the moon five decades ago, a date Lago said he hadn’t planned on as its release, but one that worked out nicely.
Lago was 13 years old on July 20, 1969. He remembers his family moving the television into the living room where they watched the moon landing the entire day, black-and-white images flickering and cementing themselves into the minds of a generation. It’s like the fall of the Berlin wall. Ask anyone and they likely remember exactly where they stood in that moment, the clothes they were wearing, who they were with.
“Shadows” is no ordinary musing on the giant tide-determining orb in the heavens, though. Lago takes a giant creative leap, chronicling the historic moment and all that came before it from the perspective of the moon itself.
“Here the moon is, minding its own business and along comes this bizarre light made out of these bizarre shapes,” he said, referencing the Apollo lunar module.
The novel takes these artistic liberties only so far, however, and behind each prosaic sentence and visually evocative observation is the science of it all — a foundation without which “Shadows” might wrongly be relegated to hyperbolic sci-fi, embellished storytelling; it is the empirical evidence, hard facts and months of research that fasten the book at the seams.
“[It] sort of falls between audiences in that regard,” Lago said. “The science audience that just wants the facts, and the other, a little more distrustful of science.”
Lago’s work has been published in Astronomy and Smithsonian magazines among others. He wanted to be a writer from a young age, he said. His father taught electrical engineering, his mother English. The cross pollination of the arts and sciences was something that surrounded him early on and made its way into his career. It’s only logical that “Shadows” be a work that flexes both fields.
The book showcases the poignancy that creative nonfiction has in painting a full picture while also allowing its author to turn a critical eye toward an historical event. For Lago that translated to scrutinizing the patriotic fervor that surrounded the moon landing.
“Usually we discounted one thing about Apollo and that is the history as a political, nationalistic, technological initiative. [But] before that, humans have always been fascinated by the universe. When Kennedy proposed going to the moon, that tapped into this deep wonder of the moon. A core sense of wonder that humans have through both religion and science,” Lago said. “I suggest that was underneath the surface, underneath the politics, these thousands of years of just wondering about the moon. So I wanted to make that a full circle and leave this as a statement of wonder.”
Decentralizing the hero — that is, the human — male superstar astronauts in what was in many ways a boys club was pivotal to inserting awe, poetry and fascination back into the narrative. The political — the high noon standoff upped in scale and turned nuclear between the United States and the Soviet Union — is not so much cast aside, rather, unpacked.
The book falls just shy of a cautionary tale and settles comfortably into an arguably necessary readjusted view of history and its players; less glory and more reality.
In “Shadows,” the moon’s dusty, gray, pocked surface serves as character and stage in one, created by a massive collision and still more that followed, whereupon the American actors arrive as ancillary ones, much later — billions of years later, really.