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sophia_sol ([personal profile] sophia_sol) wrote2017-04-07 07:02 pm

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly

As is the case for many people, I'm sure, I read this book because I'd seen the recent movie based on it, thought the movie was wonderful, and wanted to know more. And this book was definitely worth seeking out! I was gonna explain the premise of the story for people who aren't familiar, but the book does it for you in its expansive subtitle so there you go.

Turns out the movie deviates from the book rather more than I'd been expecting. A lot of rearrangement of timelines and of character relationships and so forth (for example: West Computing didn't even exist anymore by the time NACA became NASA and started working on going to space! All the black computers and mathematicians were by that time integrated into the rest of NASA, into various divisions of specialization). And lots of hollywoodizing of the details of events (for example: Katherine Johnson did do the last-minute mathematical checks for John Glenn's flight, but rather than happening day-of after Glenn was already suited up to go, it took her a day and a half leading up to the flight day. It was a lot of numbers!).

The book was also generally far more interested in the broader cultural context, both within NACA/NASA and in the whole of the US. Where the movie is very much a personal narrative of the three main characters, the book doesn't even really feel like it has main characters at all. The three women the movie's about do have the largest roles in the book, but the book talks about a LOT of other people as well. I really liked all the contextualization in the book - I felt like it made for a richer understanding of what the black women of NACA/NASA were living through. And the book also had a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of racial dynamics than the movie.

The book felt a bit scattered at times. I got the sense that the author had huge vast swathes of information that she was excited about sharing but didn't always manage to organize the info in the best way. The book is unfortunately not entirely chronological, and though I understand the author's choice to do it this way because sometimes you want to follow a particular strand of story for a while, it means it's harder to keep track of what's happening when and in relation to what.

Overall: definitely worth a read, even if your library hold takes forever to come in because there's so much interest in the book right now.

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