Book Title: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly (author), Robin Miles (narrator)
Style: Chapter book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, Modern History, Sociology
Page Count: 368
Format: Audiobook (library)
Reading time: 11 hours
Date Finished: 2/04/17
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My impressions: Wow. Hidden Figures just came out as a film last month, and the book (published in September of 2016) is getting a lot of buzz as a result. It’s honestly worthy of the hype – this is a very compelling, very interesting history of a group of people whose contributions to aeronautics, the space program and science and math in general have largely been ignored or shuffled towards the background. We shouldn’t be so surprised that women, and black women in particular, participated in these fields. And yet when we think of the history of the space program and NASA, we all too often conjure up images from The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, which show nerdy white men working in Mission Control and advising the white male astronauts in space. Isn’t the story more interesting when you know that NASA (and its predecessor, NACA) had at different points hundreds of women completing computations, and that many of those women were black schoolteachers who excelled at mathematics?
The book focuses on the stories of four women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. Each is given a complete backstory and it’s quite interesting to see how their lives intertwined and their experiences varied as they fulfilled different roles as mathematicians, analysts, engineers and computer programmers. The story also goes into a great amount of detail about the realities of living in the Jim Crow South and the rapid growth of the Langley Research Center (and all that it brought with it to the local community).And yet amidst all that detail is a story that feels rich rather than dry; a pocket of history that is fascinating to learn about and which serves as an interesting connection to the changes in the culture between the WWII era and the late 1960s as the civil rights movement took traction and national attitudes towards segregation shifted.
I will say I wish I’d read the actual book instead of the audiobook, but it’s no fault of Robin Miles, who gave the audiobook edition an excellent and extremely dignified narration. The problem is that hearing even short chunks of the story would prompt me to want to think, which meant I could only listen in short bursts. I’m not great at listening to audiobooks, and the slower pace of absorbing such rich material means that I have a great deal of trouble focusing my attention on listening instead of responding. Still, the slower pace gave me time to savor the excellent prose and the memorable details. This is a story well-told, by a breakout writer who’s got a wonderful gift for making her subjects feel three-dimensional and human. A lesser writer would have played up the more dramatic elements of the story or tried to construct a narrative that didn’t happen. And yet Margot Lee Shetterly manages to tell a story about a place that’s quite technical and dull and makes it seem like a place where science and knowledge allow a meritocracy to form in the midst of an era of terrible public racism towards black people.
It’s really, really good stuff. Give it a read or listen if you can – I’ve heard it’s even better if you’ve seen the movie.