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The subject matter was excellent and well researched; I was fascinated with the stories of these women and their contributions to the space program.
That being said, I agree with several other reviewers who noted that is hard to fully engage with these women's stories because of the way the information is presented. It more like a documentary than a personal account, so you don't feel a personal connection with these fascinating ladies. Also, the author jumps around frequently, which doesn't help with the story presentation. I listened to this on audio, but I think that the movie may help with the emotional connection. I probably will see the movie at some point, now that I have this background.
While this is a story about the contributions of the Black women, these women also helped other women, regardless of their race, with their careers, which is also noteworthy. Even today, there are stories about companies having trouble recruiting women for the STEM fields; without these women's contributions, there would be even fewer women in these fields today.
It is astounding to think of the trust that everyone had to place in the calculations of these human computers. Lives depended on their accuracy, and they certainly came through. It is worth noting that it took some time to get used to the use of the term "computers" to refer to people instead of machines.
There was a great quote in this book: "The best thing about breaking a barrier is that it won't have to be broken again." I love that quote and what it represents. There was another important observation in this book near the end, and that was when the author brings out that these women do not want to stand out for their differences, but their talents; and that is as it should be.
46 of 49 people found this review helpful
I live in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where NASA's JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is hidden at the top of the Arroyo Seco. Riding the Metro Gold Line east to historic Monrovia from Los Angeles' lovingly maintained Art Deco/Mission Revival style Union Station, you'd never guess the gleaming light rail tracks cross and recross secret washes and gullies where the engines that would take people to the moon and beyond were tested.
NASA didn't just hide its rockets - it hid its people, too, and across the country. "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016) is an exploration of Black women in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915 - 1958) and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), especially at Langley Air Force Base.
Langley is by Hampton and Newport News, Virginia. Jim Crow laws - the so-called state law "separate but equal" laws - were in force for the entirety of NACA. Langley followed state laws, which meant that highly educated and talented women from then Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) were calculating ballistic trajectories during World War II - and then eating lunch in the "Colored" area. Black women calculators were absolutely crucial to the war effort, but couldn't use the same bathrooms as their White colleagues. Margot Lee Shetterly's writing is so empathetic that I felt the burn of anger that super human computer Katherine Johnson and her coworkers felt.
I love that the book has such a thorough discussion of actual segregation, and the key role that Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993) had in ending it. When the US Supreme Court abolished separate Black schools in Brown v Board of Education (1954) 347 US 483, some school districts in Virginia closed for years rather than integrate - which meant that some children, Black and White, were denied years of schooling. Just the logistics of being a working mother without child care must have been daunting. Shetterly reminds us that Brown and the forced integration in Little Rock, AR, were not the end of educational discrimination - they were the beginning of an end that hasn't happened yet.
Shetterly's book is pretty good on the social issues, but I found it hard to follow the women's lives. The book jumped from topic to topic and different eras. There's such a great discussion of Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha that when I came across their booth at my daughter's college fair this week, I was awed. AKA didn't come up until the last part of the book, even though it was part of the women's lives from the beginning.
I was disappointed the physics and chemistry of flight, missiles, rocketry and space exploration weren't well explained. Shetterly lightly addresses what human calculators did. Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon" (2016), the story of women computers at Southern California's JPL, has a great discussion of the science. The difference might be because "Hidden Figures" was optioned and filmed as a major motion picture before it was published as a book. The book was released September 6, 2016; and the movie is being released either at Christmas, 2016 or January 13, 2017 - after this review was written.
Even though I found parts of the book a little meandering and lacking in depth, I'm giving the book and audible performance my highest rating and recommendation. It's a great story, and one that deserves a listen.
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239 of 261 people found this review helpful