2017 Reading List: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

I finished the next book on my 2017 Reading List a few weeks ago, but hadn’t had the time or mental capacity to write my review until now. The second that the movie, Hidden Figures, came out, I knew that I had to read the book first. As I’ve probably mentioned, I find most books to be better than the movie, and I prefer to read them first, to imagine my own world and characters.

There was quite a waiting list for Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, so by the time I downloaded it from the library I was really optimistic. 

Hidden Figures is a book about the female mathematicians who worked as “human computers” at the NACA, what became NASA. Specifically, these women were black, living in a racist time period, when segregation was the way of life and black workers were paid less, if they could find jobs at all. The women worked hard, pushed through barriers and broke ceilings. Their story was largely untold, until now.

I won’t give you a history lesson here; I’ll leave that for the book. But in a nutshell, this book follows the lives of several of those black mathematicians, starting in the 1940’s and on through the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. The women at the front of the line were the ones who were picking up the slack during World War II, when men were fighting overseas and the U.S. was working to keep up with aeronautical demand. These women were told they might get to work at Langley aeronautical research center for 6 months and they ended up staying for 20 years and more. Other women highlighted in the book, started their careers at Langley later, but came across just as much prejudice. Women were not considered for engineering positions, they were not promoted as quickly or as high, and they were not considered equals on matters where independent thinking was key.

The women were valued for their ability to solve complex equations in their head and by hand. By the end of the book, 30 years later, they were finally being seen for their true value to the aeronautical and space program.

I started this book thinking that it would be a real-life story of women at NASA. I expected more plot, more character detail, a real look at their lives and thoughts and feelings.

This was a good historical account, but it was not a story. There was struggle and triumph, there was a beginning, middle and end, there were characters whose lives were intertwined, but everything was a 30,000 foot view. It was the telling of history. It was dry. It was missing the characters’ real lives. I did not feel like I had become a part of Langley. I did not feel like I was walking the hallways with the women, sitting at their “colored girls” lunch table or staying late nights computing equations. I wanted to feel like I had jumped into their skin, to really understand what it had been like to be a black female engineer at NASA, but that it not the way this book was told.

I now know more about what these women did, but I don’t know who they are. If that’s the kind of book you’re expecting too, then don’t read this one.

I did, however, like this book for the open insight it gave into a piece of history that I had never learned about. I’m the first to admit that my education had quite a few gaps when it comes to U.S. history, and I hate that. But being able to continue to read books to broaden my  knowledge and deepen my understanding of our world and society is so important. This book, Hidden Figures, is so important.

As a woman, it was inspiring to read a historical account of smart, strong, fierce women in the workplace, pushing for equal treatment, equal pay and perhaps most importantly, equal acknowledgement of their abilities and achievements.

I will now watch the movie with a better background and understanding of the bigger picture. From what I’ve seen, the movie is based on only a small piece of the book. There’s no way they could have captured all 30+ years of history and context in one 2-hour film and done it any justice.

I’ll give this book three stars. Not my favorite story to read, a little slow and dry, but still such a beautifully told piece of history.



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