Book Review – Hidden Figures

TITLE: Hidden Figures

AUTHOR: Margot Lee Shetterly

PUBLISHED: 2016

FORMAT: Paperback

Hidden Figures bills itself on the cover as “The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”  That is a perfect description of the book, which has already inspired a (somewhat fictionalized) movie about the  events in the book.   (Full disclosure, I have seen the movie, but I’m one of those people that likes to read the books that movies are based on as well).

This is a non-fiction recounting of the history of many of the women who are often overlooked in history but without whom, World War II and the Space Race would not have gone the way it did.  The book gives you the history of several of the women involved, including Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson. But Hidden Figures is not just about the work the women did, but also the environment they did it in – mainly the segregated south of the 1940s/1950s/1960s, as well as the atmosphere of the Cold War that surrounded the Space Race.  The book doesn’t stint on the history and how it impacted the many women involved.

In fact, there could have been a lot more history in the book – the main chapters end at Apollo 11 (the moon landing for those who aren’t as much of a NASA nerd as I am), but the Epilogue continues with more history on some of the women, up to 2015.  Understandably, the lack of ‘more’ is subjective, and the book makes it clear how much things changed at NASA, from its pre-NASA days as the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) to the 1980s at least.  Granted, it also shows how much hasn’t changed.

The narrative is definitely helped by the author’s personal familiarity with the subject (she knew some of the women personally growing up in Virginia), as well as the years of research she conducted.  She also has a good writing style that kept me interested in the book as a whole.  This wasn’t a dry history of facts and dates.  She helped you view the players not only as professionals in history, but as individual persons.  That’s not always the case in some non-fiction historical narratives I’ve read.

All in all, I found Hidden Figures pretty compelling.  This is an area of history I’m not as familiar with, though I’ve read a lot about the early days of NASA (I may have NASA nerd tendencies).  However, information about these women who were integral to the program was not in a lot of the histories I read, mostly written by the white men who worked at NASA, or were the astronauts themselves.  And, admittedly, there are times when it is a hard read given the societal issues and the language that was prevalent at the time (the author chose to use the language of the times to stay true to her subject).  While I don’t feel that is a reason not to read this book, I know that not everyone feels the same way.

I give it 4 out of 5 pages.

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