Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
5 stars for the story. 4 on the writing.
First, I want to say well done to Author Margot Lee Shetterly for all the research and work she did to bring this story to light. She clearly put a lot of time and effort and it shows by the thoroughness of this story.
This book is a fascinating look at remarkable women, particularly African-American women, who overcame segregation, racism, gender politics, and more to not only secure jobs at NACA (NASA’s predecessor) in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but to thrive and contribute to some of the most important aeronautic and space achievements in the mid-twentieth century—so it’s quite impressive that this story was packaged in approximately 265 pages. (I say approximately because the book is bit less than 265 because each chapter started on the right hand page, even if there was no text from the previous chapter on the left hand page. And also while the complete book 349 pages, the last 1/4 is only the notes, bibliography, index, and reading group guide.)
My one main criticism is that this book should have been longer.
The book interwove the stories of several black female protagonists from the late 1930s through the early 1970s. While the cover mentions 4 main women (Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden), there are several more women discussed and many more women mentioned throughout the book. So many fascinating and interesting women who were pioneers not only in a workforce, but in math and scientific field, and this book just could not do justice to all of these amazing women. To do so would take several books. But if this book had another 100 pages or so, I think some of these stories could have been fleshed out a bit better (more on that below).
This book dealt with quite complex social and economic themes by showing us these women’s individual narratives (mainly the 4 listed above) set against the history and politics of the time, including the development and rise of NACA/NASA. While the book does nicely deal with the complicated themes of race and gender, I found the narrative to be choppy and disjointed, often overlapping and jumping from one person to the next, and forward and backward through time. This disjointedness created many mini-sections within each chapter, and contributed to the pacing getting bogged down. This resulted in me reading a few sections of a chapter, then putting the book aside for a while, which meant that although I normally would have finished a book this size in a couple days (maybe one weekend day), it instead took me a week and a half to finish it.
The writing also leaned more toward the technical (the science and math of aeronautics and space travel). While this technical writing supported the story of NACA/NASA’s development and the work being done by the women of and other staff, it lacked the warmth and depth of a personal narrative. While the post-WWII space race is fascinating, there are many books on the subject and I was more interested in the women’s personal narratives. More on their individual experiences, which we are really only given glimpses of. I realize each women’s personal journey heavily relied on what was happening in the world/NASA, but I would have liked to read a bit less NASA’s story and more on the women. Ms. Shetterly even notes in the epilogue that she had to cut quite a bit of personal narrative out. I find that disappointing, because I think readers would have gladly read another 100 or more pages.
I do admit that the complexity of this story would make it hard to separate the personal narratives from the story of NACA/NASA and the politics and history of that time—and Ms. Shetterly probably could have tripled the pages to tell this story. But I find it sad that parts were cut with no real explanation as to why other than to keep the book at a “reasonable” length. (I’m guessing the publisher wanted this to be under 300 pages probably for marketability purposes.)
Despite the issues I saw with the writing and the editorial choices, this is a book worth reading. This is a story that should be taught in secondary schools because there is not enough focus on the contributions of women, especially minority women and women in the sciences, throughout history.
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