Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Title: Hidden Figures

Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Audience: Adult

Rating (scale of 1-10): 8
TL;DR: A group of determined African American women overcome racial and gender barriers to help the United States win the space race.

Longer review:  
Hidden Figures details the lives and work of a group of African American women working at the Langley aeronautical research station in Virginia.  First hired to fill the ranks left by men during WWII, the urgency of the space race provided even more opportunity.  Hired against the prevailing wisdom that women were unable to comprehend the complex mathematics involved in flight and space travel, these female human 'computers’ proved their doubters wrong.  What's more, in Jim Crow-era Virginia, a state where reactionary laws enforced segregation (even when it became illegal), these women had to break through racial barriers too.  Their accomplishments would be tremendous even without the adversity they had to overcome.  
On the downside, while the story is compelling, the writing provides little narrative momentum of its own.  The author switches between subjects frequently, jumping from work to home-life to personal history and making things feel just a bit choppy.  Nevertheless, the winning attitudes and brilliant minds of these women carry the story forward and make for an extremely satisfying read.
With the movie doing well Hidden Figures shouldn’t be a hard sell.  But what to recommend when someone finishes and likes it?  What to suggest when you want to send them home with something when they find Hidden Figures has a huge hold queue?

For women breaking into the sciences as ‘computers’ look for The Glass Universe (Dava Sobel) or The Rise of the Rocket Girls (Nathalia Holt).  For more about diversity at NASA, try We Could Not Fail (Richard Paul and Steven Moss), and for more about the dark, hidden history of the intersections of science and race try The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot).

~ Seth Warburton

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