Book reviews / History

Book review: Hidden Figures

Oh man! What a read!

I picked up Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures at the last Ada Lovelace Day event in London. It took me a while to finally read it, but the wait was worth it.

The book (like the film) covers the careers of three black women in NASA (all amazing mathematicians): Katherine G Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. There are many other men and women who appear throughout the book but these three are the stars of the book (and the film). It mixes their history alongside that of events in the United States, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

While I have my quibbles, the book is amazing. How have we not known about this history alongside that of John Glenn and Apollo? How unbelievable that it wasn’t better known in the mainstream. If you haven’t seen the film, Katherine Johnson calculates not only the return trajectory for John Glenn but also the Apollo missions. Mary Jackson starts as a computer but becomes the first black woman engineer. Dorothy Vaughan, starts out in West Computing (the pool all the black women mathematicians) and eventually becomes the first black supervisor.

They all seemed like utterly amazing human beings, aside from being unbelievably talented. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson had far more courage in their baby finger than I probably have. For example, Dorothy Vaughan telling section heads that they had to hire their ‘computer’ (usually a black or white woman who did all the math) if they had them on loan from the computing pool for more than six months. Which is how Katherine Johnson ends up helping calculate orbital trajectories and the like as a permanent member of her group in NASA.

The book was so good that it made me get a bit annoyed at how it is all portrayed in the film. I understand narratively why they would make some of the choices they did in the film, I just found it all a bit too neat after reading the book. Without giving too much away, the time line is just completely wrong – all three women achieveĀ their individual accomplishment at vastly different times. As well, there were some switching around of events that happened to different people, which just seems very strange. I think they also got one really simple thing wrong (but I’d have to double check). Dorothy Vaughan is shown driving and fixing the car in the first scene of the film – but she never even had a driving licence!

My main quibble with the book is that it seemed to mix oral history and journalism together. I think the background history was a bit of set dressing, rather than any indepth historical analysis. There were bits of NASA bureaucracy in there, but I was wondering if there could have been more about that rather than the wider social history (which I already knew about). It basically made me want to go find out if there have been any history papers written on these women and the structures within NASA. I think I just wanted a bit more historical depth. But that probably wasn’t the intention of the book, so as I said, minor quibble.

I think I’d recommend the book over the film, just because there are so many more women in the book that you can find out about. I now want a sequel where they talk about those other women in greater detail!

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