Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia surrounded by women, who like her, were educated women of color. Her father worked for NASA and many of the older ladies in the neighborhood were also current or former NASA employees. Shetterly describes the experience as something she always took for granted. Black women as engineers and mathematicians was, however, something that wasn’t the norm, as Shetterly later found out. What she learned, was that the women in her neighborhood were breaking the color barrier long before desegregation, and while hidden within the folds of the Unites States Space Program, they were instrumental to the achievement of the technological advances that allowed NASA to put men in space and a man on the moon.
Shetterly was correct that this is a great story. These women all came from families that valued education, and after receiving their college degrees, were typically held back in teaching jobs. World War II, however, changed all that. Men were gone fighting overseas, and NACA (the precursor to NASA) recruited women as human computers and engineers. And color was no barrier because they needed all the help they could get.
Shetterly featured pioneers like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, and their stories are fascinating. But there are things about this book that could have been better. I would have liked to see more narrative of these women, personal stories from them and from people who worked with them. I realize that these women were very elderly or dead, but I was reminded of the great work about Alexander Dumas called The Black Count by Tom Reiss, which is a perfect example of a man of color who broke barriers and lived a most interesting life. This book was filled with stories directly and indirectly related to Dumas, and was obviously written long after his death. Shetterly also pads her writing quite a bit, filling it with verbage directly telling the reader how important these women were in breaking barriers for black women. The story does that itself, and Shetterly should have left the majority of that sentiment for her closing paragraph.
Also, this is a book about science and the space program. It is understood that the average reader would not understand the finer details of their work, but I would have liked this be the main story. It’s the work that’s important – and it’s their race and gender that elevate the story to the next level. So Shetterly should have made the work and its story, primary, in my opinion. Again, I was thinking about books relating to science that had a broad appeal, and I was reminded of the great physicist Richard P. Feynman’s memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. His humorous vignettes supporting the greater story of the race for the atomic bomb really stand out. I may not have understood all the science he mentioned in his book, but it was very human, interesting and entertaining.
I am pleased that a movie has been made based on Hidden Figures and by the trailer, it looks like Hollywood has added that human and entertaining element missing from the book. Still, I was glad to have the opportunity to read about these women and their remarkable story. Hidden Figures will hit bookshelves December 29, 2016. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy!
3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2016