Book of the Week: Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Some of you saw the cool movie trailer I posted last week for the forthcoming film of this book. (If not, I’ve posted it again at the end of this review.)  But don’t think of this book as some kind of novelization of a movie. Hidden Figures is an impressive work of historical research and great read.

Shetterly’s book follows the story of four African American women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the early days of the space program. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow racism topped with a dose of garden variety mid-20th century sexism, “the computers,” as they were called, were fundamental in the shaping and success of America’s space program.

To get a sense of how integral “the computers” were to the space program, consider this anecdote: When John Glenn was counting down to his landmark flight around the Earth’s orbit he told the director of flight operations to get Katherine Johnson. “Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”

This is you-are-there American history. Shetterly draws from oral histories of scores of NASA employees, personal recollections of the women by their colleagues and family members, information from archival documents, and media reports and correspondence of local and national African American leaders of the era.

Hidden Figures was listed as one of PW’s most anticipated books of Fall 2016. I think we’ll see very strong review and media coverage leading up to the release of the film. But don’t wait for the movie—you know the book is always better. 🙂

The first female computing pool, begun in the mid-1930s, had caused an uproar; the men in the lab couldn’t believe a female mind could process the rigorous math and work the expensive calculating machine….[T]he women who were hired were crack mathematicians, either already holding master’s degrees or destined to gain one. It was hard enough to be a woman in the industry at that time, but the black women who worked at Langley also had to be strong, sharp, and sufficiently self-possessed to be able to question their superiors—and that is just what they did. They sought information, offered suggestions, caught errors, and authored research reports. The stories are amazing not because the women were extremely smart, but because they fought for and won recognition and devotedly supported each other’s work. Their work outside the office—as Scout leaders, public speakers, and leaders of seminars to promote science and engineering—was even more impressive. They were there from the beginning, perfecting World War II planes and proving to be invaluable to the nascent space program.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Obviously, one could go on and on about the amazement at finding out that black women were at the center of the US aeronautics and space industries, but the part of the story that really spoke to me was that many of these women had already turned their back on their dreams for various reasons–for marriage, children, or simple economic expediency–but then long after they thought their lives were decided, some combination of luck and fate tapped them on the shoulder and they stepped up, even if it meant uprooting or separating from their families. I can’t imagine the courage it took to do that. This book also made me long for when the country called on its citizens to do something great, and when patriotism meant more than mere flag-waving. When it was deemed crucial to recognize and develop talent in whatever package–white or black, male or female, citizen or immigrant–it was wrapped in.”
— Kim Fox, Schuler Books & Music, Grand Rapids, MI

 

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (9780062363596) by Margot Lee Shetterly. $27.99 hardcover. 9/6/16 on sale.

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