Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

There’s a lot going on in Margot Lee Shetterly’s account of the black female mathematicians at NASA from WWII to the end of the Cold War – I just wish it wasn’t told in such a dry fashion.

Hidden Figures follow the careers of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson at NASA in an era which saw the desegregation of US schools, the rise of feminism, the start of the Cold War, and our first steps into space. Dorothy, Katherine and Mary have three of the most agile minds in NASA history, able to solve complex mathematical, programming, and engineering problems with ease. Yet they still struggle to prove their worth to NASA – experiencing racism and sexism at every turn.

There’s so much going on here it should be a writer’s dream. Somehow though, the heroism and excitement of the age gets lost, and Hidden Figures becomes a historical account – focusing on dates, names and ranks, rather than stirring any emotion throughout. Still, Margot Lee Shetterly keeps things relentlessly upbeat – she writes about Dorothy, Katherine and Mary with a pride and admiration that never becomes bitter (despite the awful way they are treated).

If there’s a triumph in Hidden Figures, it’s that it places the extraordinary events of the race for space within the social struggles of the time – a feat in itself:

“So much money spent so that … a dozen white men could take the express train to a lifeless world? Negro women and men could barely go to the next state without worrying about predatory police, restaurants that refused to serve them, and service stations that wouldn’t let them buy gas or use the bathroom.”

I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat. It tells an important story, about an incredible time, of the women who helped the US to land on the moon.

It’s just, well, a bit boring for the most part.

 


So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it?

Let me know in the comments!

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