Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures (2016)
So, if you’re simply wondering whether I think this book is worth reading, and you’re interested in women’s history, civil rights, U.S. history, the space program, math, or computer science (which I should think covers most of us), I will save you some valuable reading time and say: yes, it is. Go get a copy of this book pronto, and don’t just rely on watching the movie. You’re going to want to know the facts behind the film.
But if that’s not enough for you, here’s my more detailed description and response: Hidden Figures tells the fascinating story of a group of “colored computers,” black women employed to do essential mathematical tasks in the development of air and space technology. During World War II, when employment opportunities were of necessity stretched beyond their normal limits, these brilliant, talented women got a toe in the door of the burgeoning military economy, even though they were segregated and often overlooked and undervalued. Shetterly focuses on four of them, though she believes that there were many more than even the available historical record shows. The story of their bravery, determination, and intelligence makes for some compelling and inspiring reading, as in our world today it becomes clear that the ugly prejudice that they had to fight against has by no means been conquered.
Not just a peek into an obscure, forgotten corner of our history, this is a subject that touches on so many important and relevant topics that it’s really essential for anyone who wants to know where we came from and where we are going. Shetterly expertly interweaves the personal stories of the women into the larger picture of social and technological change that took place during their era, an enormous upheaval that we still have to wrestle with. She didn’t conduct her research just in dusty archival records; she actually knew some of the women growing up, as her parents moved within some of the same circles, and this helps bring them closer to us.
In spite of that personal connection, Shetterly generally writes in a calm, measured third-person style, describing rather than dramatizing the incidents of her narrative, though she occasionally inserts some stirring and passionate commentary. She also has a tendency to use flowery similes that I found unnecessary and distracting, but mercifully these were few and far between. It’s going to be interesting to see how the book is turned into a film, since there is almost no dialogue given; much will have to be invented. For that reason, if you’re interested in historical accuracy I definitely recommend the book to ground you in reality, although the dramatic potential of the story on screen is certainly irresistible.
However you experience it, Hidden Figures is a story that definitely deserves to come to light. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.