Book Review: Hidden Figures

Book Review: Hidden FiguresHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly
on December 6th 2016
Pages: 349
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Genres: Non-Fiction

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as "human computers" used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South's segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America's aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam's call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia's Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley's all-black West Computing group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA's greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives - and their country's future.

My Takeaway 

Hidden Figures is the extraordinary true story of the obstacles and triumphs of a group of African-American women Mathematicians who made history, and were essential in sending the first American astronauts into space. Shetterly does an exceptional job and vividly depicts the lives of these exceptional women and what they faced and overcame. I stumbled upon this quote from the website The Root, “By celebrating these black female “human computers,” we give credit to the work of black women that has, like the achievements of black women in so many other fields, historically been ignored.” The book is well-written and Shetterly’s thorough research is evident and impressive, but it’s also quite technical and a bit slow at times. However, if you are a space nerd or engineer, you will love and appreciate how much work was put into it. Shetterly is a meticulous and talented writer who needs to be commended for bringing this incredible, untold story to the public. This is a great book for high school students (there is a young readers’ version as well). I also highly recommend the movie to everyone. It’s a wonderful film, but keep in mind some of it is historical fiction. The movie can be enjoyed by the entire family (my 12-year-old absolutely loved it).

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