Hidden Figures - A Book Review

March 11, 2017

Hidden figures book review
I so very much wanted to love Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, but sadly I didn’t. It was educational and interesting, and because the book was turned into a truly excellent Oscar-nominated film it’s a very popular book right now, but I truly can’t say I really enjoyed it.

The book centers on the lives of a group of African American women who because of their gender and the colour of their skin, were limited to teaching math in the segregated schools in the US south until the onset of the US involvement in the second World War. The dramatic rise in need for talented individuals to work in the aeronautics industry opened a door for these women and many others, who possessed the mathematical skills to help develop planes for the war in the sky, and later to help the US beat the USSR in the race to the moon.

Hidden Figures is Margot Lee Shetterly’s first book, and it’s easy to tell. It’s incredibly researched, but the problem is she attempted to cram in every piece of research she did into the book which makes it a very dry read. I read on the subway on my daily commute to work, which means that I generally read in stretches of 30 minutes or so. The heavily fact-based nature of the book, and the very non-linear writing style she uses (jumping back and forth through time, and across characters) made this book a difficult one for me to get through.

Some of the trouble I had with the book might be due my very basic knowledge of the history of racial segregation in the American south and of the space race. I’m Canadian so my history classes in school centered mostly on Canadian history (and a very white-washed version of it at that), therefore the book’s structure and tendency to jump around through time, and across events in history made it hard for me to follow when historic figures and events in the civil rights movement were interlaced with the scientific events occurring at NASA.

In life I find there are generally only two types of people – those who read the book first, or those who watch the movie first. I am firmly in the first camp, but for Hidden Figures I ended up seeing the movie first (in truth only because the hold list at the library was so long). The movie is excellent, but while it’s based on the book, it takes a number of liberties with the story of these truly inspiration women. If you’ve seen the movie and are thinking about reading the book please remember that the movie is a work of fiction based on true events, and I wish in this case I had read the book first.

Have you read the book? What did you think?

hidden figures book cover
Book title: Hidden Figures
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Genre: History
Pages: 384
My rating: 2 stars
Buy the book: Amazon.com Amazon.ca
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

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