Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review - Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Book Synopsis

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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My Review

I have been excited about Hidden Figures (and the movie adaptation) since I first heard of it.  I have long been interested in the early days of NASA, as well as women's history.

This nonfiction book is a fascinating look at the lives of the African American women who helped pioneer NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), which later became NASA, through their work in mathematics.  

Hidden Figures tells the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, mathematicians who come to the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hamden, Virginia as "computers" (mathematicians).  Their stories are covered both separately and interwoven.  I found these brilliant women to be so inspiring.  Their personal stories were very moving.  Their work, and the work of other African American mathematicians, space scientists, and physicists, was so crucial to the space program.  This is an important book, and I really hope it reaches a large readership.

One incident in the book really encapsulates what these brilliant women, the "West Computers," faced working at Langley early on.  They worked long hours with very detailed assignments.  In the employee cafeteria, they were assigned a table labeled "Colored Computers."  One of the women started removing the sign, but it kept reappearing.  Eventually over time the sign no longer appeared, and integration within the Langley workforce moved forward.

The historical details of Hidden Figures are fascinating.  I especially was interested in life at Langley during the 1940's, in the early days of the program.  Langley played a crucial role in World War II aviation.  The same attention to detail is seen as the book moves into the 1950's and 1960's.  It is truly such an interesting read for anyone who loves history.

The book is beautifully written.  Margot Lee Shetterly's research and passion for the subject shines through.  The descriptions are vivid and they make history come to life.

I give Hidden Figures five stars and my highest recommendation.  This is nonfiction for all readers (not just nonfiction fans).  It tells a fascinating story about women you will admire and care about.  Hidden Figures is so inspiring, and it brilliantly illuminates part of history that has not been covered enough in the past.
Author Bio
Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.

I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.