As a woman, as a Virginian, and as a former high school math teacher, the topic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures both excited and moved me. She tells the true story of the black, female mathematicians who, during the labor shortages of World War II, came to work at NASA’s Langely Field campus in Hampton, Virginia. These “human computers,” most of whom had previously worked as underpaid math teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at NASA after the war ended and became an important part of America’s race into space.
Fascinating, right? Totally. Except I had some trouble actually getting through the book.
Largely this was due to my taste in books. I was hoping for a highly-personal narrative that closely followed the lives of these brilliant women. I was hoping, to be honest, for another The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a highly-personal nonfiction book that I devoured in two days). But that is simply not what Hidden Figures is.
The book does follow four women in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives as well as their careers and contributions to NASA. But it is done in a much more distant way than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; instead of staying close to these women’s stories, the book often spans way out to address the wider historical context. For example:
So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations…
…Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them.
Also, unlike The Immortal Life, Shetterly, as the author, stays firmly behind the scenes (except for in the Prologue which, as it happens, was one of my favorite parts). But all of this is not to say that Hidden Figures is bad or unreadable. The opposite, in fact. It is a beautiful-written and expertly-researched book about a fascinating topic. It is the perfect book for people who love history and/or love reading nonfiction (especially if they enjoy nonfiction books about history). It’s not, however, the best choice for people like me who prefer novels, or at least nonfiction books that read like narrative fiction.
While this book wasn’t quite for me, I’m so glad it was written. I was happy to learn about these women, who proved you can be black and female and a top-notch mathematician (something, that, unfortunately, is still not as common as it should be.) This is an important story that most people knew nothing about until now.
What I’m greatly looking forward to is the motion picture; that’s right, Hidden Figures is going to be a movie! I’m guessing the film will likely focus on (and likely embellish) the narrative threads woven throughout the book and will provide me with the strong, personal story I tend to need when digesting my history. The movie is due out this January. It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and features Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.