Book Review: Hidden Figures

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Title: Hidden Figures

Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Publisher: William Morrow

Publication Date: February 2017 (This Edition)

Synopsis:

Set amid the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program.

Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘colored computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of mankind’s greatest adventure with the intimate stories of five courageous women whose work forever changed the world

Rating: 3.5/5

Review: I was incredibly excited when I got my hands on this book; I thought it was going to be an in depth look at the lives of these women and how they were such an important part of aerodynamics and the space race. Don’t get me wrong, it had elements of that but, in all, I thought this book was a let down. It could have been so much more than what it was and it could have paid greater homage to these women and their stories.

The book takes us through the 1940’s and begins with Dorothy Vaughan and how she got her chance to work at Langley. Anything to do with Dorothy and her work, life and nature enthralled me, however, I was only given a few sentences here and there about Dorothy, the rest of the chapters were taken up with racism and scientific information. Racism was and still is horrendous; what people had to endure in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and going right up to the current day is atrocious and unacceptable and I understand using it as a back drop for the story to show how these women came through this awful barrier of race and then having to get through the glass ceiling of their gender to become some of the greatest scientific minds in the world. What I didn’t appreciate was the fact that racism was brought up at every opportunity, like it was being shoved in my face, and really detracted from the story. The chapter would begin with Dorothy or Mary or Katherine before it was deviated away to address racism in America generally then it was brought back quickly and crudely with a few rushed sentences. It really threw me and made me forget where I was with each woman’s story and the sense of pride I had for what I was reading about them would dissipate. Another aspect was all of the scientific information that was relayed to me, it was excessive and I felt like I needed a science degree to read the book. I liked hearing about the women’s work, what they had a hand in but the general information about what NACA/NASA was working on just bored me because it had nothing to do with any of the women the book was meant to be about. It gave the impression that the writer had been let into Langley’s archives and let loose so she had to relay every piece of what she found back to us.

There were aspects of the book that I loved and those parts were based solely around the strength and focus of these women. There were certain sentences and paragraphs that were so strong and poignant that it made my inner feminist rejoice such as:-

“Mary didn’t have the power to remove the limits that society imposed on her girls, but it was her duty, she felt, to help pry off the restrictions they might place on themselves. Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status – none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions. You can do better. We can do better.”

These are some of my favourite sentences in the book because I feel they still resonate today with many people. I know I’m guilty of placing restrictions on myself even though I try to alleviate them off others. I thought it really showed the beauty of Mary’s character and how, even though her race and gender were an issue for others back then, she refused to let them be an issue for herself.

Katherine is possibly my most favourite character in the book, closely followed by Mary. Katherine is one of those people who I wished I could be; I wished I could have her outlook on life, her sheer determination and passion for everything she puts her hand to. She built her reputation by working with others, not trampling on them to get to the top like others would with her being a black woman, and by showing her fellow colleagues complete respect which, in turn, earned theirs. She was modest and just did what she had to do even though she had a hand in one of the most iconic moments in American history, putting a man on the moon. She is someone I truly look up to and admire.

The end of this book ties up the the story neatly but it also very contradictory. The writer states that the women’s “goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talents” which I feel is very fitting with their characters. However, the book has been so focused on how they have overcome such adversity, how they have fought to get through the gender barrier and how they have had to battle the race war to achieve their dreams that it places them on a pedestal. I’m not saying they have no right to be placed on high but, if they didn’t want to be differentiated from others because of race and gender, then why has the writer spent the entire book doing just that? For me, this contradiction made this book a little farcical and really let it down. The women are incredible and true inspirations but the book isn’t the dedication to their lives and work that they truly deserve.

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