Book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Movie: Hidden Figures (2016), starring Taraji P. Hensen, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe
Age/Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: In a quiet bath where you can focus on dense material.
Reading Accoutrements: Coffee! Or any beverage that will help keep you focused.
Content Notes: Both the book and movie explore racism, anti-feminism, and segregation in America over the span of several decades.
I watched the movie first. I know, I know – “ALWAYS read the book before you watch the movie!” And that is a good rule of thumb most of the time. But I love the actresses in Hidden Figures and the story looked awesome and I didn’t have time to read the book yet. (Yes, I know. “Excuses, excuses…”) SO, I watched the movie first. You know what? It made me want to read the book.
The reason is standard and simple: I wanted to see what the movie left out. I wanted to read the first- or secondhand accounts of the events that happened in the movie. I wanted to become emotionally invested in the lives of these historical figures. I wanted to put myself in their shoes for 265 pages and learn from that walk – that’s what the movie inspired me to do. It inspired me to seek out more knowledge about the journey of some incredible women in history.
The book? Inspired me to set it down and walk away. A LOT.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows the journey of four black women who, like the title says, were mathematicians who made significant contributions to the American space program. The book begins with Dorothy Vaughan, an intelligent girl who excelled in the maths and sciences; detours to Katherine Coleman (later Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson), a successful mathematician’s daughter who graduated high school at the age of 14; explores the life of Mary Jackson, an intellectual with a giving spirit and the ability to connect people; and ends with the story of Christine Darden, a smart young lady inspired by the idea of space. The book circles back to each of these women throughout their lives, from the start of WWII – when NASA was simply NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – to the end of the space race.
It took me six months to read Hidden Figures; I had to push this review date three times because I couldn’t finish the book. I’m proud to say that I finally got through the whole thing (including the epilogue) and I have a few ideas about why this book was hard for me.
First of all, I’d like to remind everybody that I am an escapist reader, first and foremost. When I am reading for pleasure, I absolutely prefer to read a book that draws me in, takes me on a dramatic – but light-hearted – adventure, and leaves me smiling. My favorite books have character-driven plots and external conflict as the catalyst – basically, I love it when an author asks, “What if I take this character and put them in this situation?”
You are probably starting to get an idea of why a historical non-fiction book was hard for me to read. Non-fiction authors already have an ending when they begin researching, and before they begin writing, that ending has an entire trail of evidence, historical fact, references, and a cast of characters. What it doesn’t have is emotion. Those characters, while present at the time of whatever event a book is fixed on, rarely provide evidence of their real-time emotions (unless there were diaries, publications, or interviews that provided first-hand accounts and even those tend to be sterilized by the thought that “someone could read this someday”).
The author must build a world based on facts that the reader might already know, providing background and laying the groundwork for the story that is about to be told – and the author must do this without a lot of characterization. The reader rarely sees actual interaction between players – there will be no dialogue unless there is a transcript to back it up, no description of twinkling eyes or cheeks flushing with anger without first-hand accounts or video evidence to prove its veracity. World-building without characterization is a major problem I have with historical non-fiction, and it is a huge part of Hidden Figures (the book). The most characterization a person might get is that she was “of an unusually independent mind,” or she “had a strong analytical bent,” or maybe she had “strength of character.” Generic descriptions that had me confusing one woman for another for much of the book.
It didn’t help that each of the women were noticeably intelligent and successful in their schooling, then all chose to detour away from their own careers and education for the sake of a man (Katherine Coleman and Dorothy Vaughan got married, Mary Jackson came home to take care of her sick father, etc.). I personally had to put the book down and practice deep-breathing exercises every time that happened – and it happens to Katherine at least twice – because it made me sad to wonder what else they could have accomplished had their husbands chosen to follow them instead of the other way around. To be clear, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have gotten married and had children. I’m saying I wonder what would have happened if they got their degrees and followed their careers and passions sooner. Books like this are so important because they bring to light the work of important people that would otherwise be lost to history – and they make you wonder what would have happened if the world hadn’t trapped those people on specific paths.
The prologue of the book was engaging because it was a first-person account from Shetterly about how she discovered that there were black female computers at NASA – and NACA before it. Her personal connection to Hampton, Virginia, and NASA – where her father worked for much of her childhood – made the idea of her research journey come alive in my mind. I was looking forward to following her as she interviewed the living computers and dug out the information, but that wasn’t how the rest of the book was written. She put the focus on the hidden figures – and I understand her reasoning – but I would have appreciated that organization a lot more.
Another challenge that historical non-fiction authors face is the question of how to organize the information. Because everything happens at once in real life, an author must decide what information is relevant to the story they are telling and then when to present that information to their audience.
Shetterly chose to present the information in a linear fashion, backtracking occasionally to provide historical background. Unfortunately, she was also following four women with different stories up to the same point in time, which meant she went back and forth from one woman to the next with no perceivable rhyme or reason. Remember how I said I kept confusing the women in the book? This organizational style didn’t help. I would’ve preferred distinct chapters for each of the women instead of floating willy-nilly through the timeline. (I’ll also add that this book spans almost the full lifetimes of these women, and they got married – some more than once – and their names changed, making it more difficult to follow. For example, Katherine Coleman became Katherine Goble and then became Katherine G. Johnson, or Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson.)
To add to my confusion, Shetterly tends to provide unnecessary information in order to draw connections between the principal characters. There is a great example of what I mean on page 155:
Noah Mann…took a more lucrative job as a sales rep based out of the Charlotte office of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, the same successful black-owned company that had underwritten the home loans of black home buyers in Hampton, including in Mimosa Crescent, Katherine Goble’s neighborhood.
This tidbit never becomes relevant to any other facts further down the timeline – just drew an insignificant connection between two women who worked together later in their lives. I’m not sure why this made the final cut.
What I love about the book is, unsurprisingly, the science. I learned a lot of really cool information about the history and physics of plane development; the difference between subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic travel; the math necessary to solve man’s quest to fly; and so on. I also love that the title isn’t immediately obvious – it could mean that these women are hidden historical figures, yes, but Shetterly wrote in the epilogue that Mary Jackson and her colleagues in Human Resources at NASA had to learn to reprogram the computers to mine data about hiring practices at the organization. They used those “hidden figures” (squeals in delight at the double meaning) to make a case to NASA administration that more women and minorities should be hired, and why certain policies were preventing NASA hiring practices from improving.
I was surprised with the amount of general history I learned while reading this book. I had thought, while reading, that much of the background information was common knowledge or just plain boring, but as I talked to Jeriann about the book, I realized that I had gleaned information about the lives of Black Americans from the end of WWII to the 1980s, including difficulties finding housing and jobs because of racist federal laws that persisted even after Brown vs Board of Education and other civil suits made segregation and discrimination based on race illegal. I also had no idea that Virginia was the last hold-out for desegregation public schools, going so far as to shut down whole counties’ public school systems for five years in order to prevent integration.
For me, the movie was everything the book wasn’t. There was character interaction, dialogue, and world-building that was demonstrated through the characters themselves. The film had moments of humor, moments of sadness, and moments of true triumph and inspiration. I love that the women in the movie have real emotions and real feelings that are so obviously, painfully absent in the book. They are fully fleshed-out human beings with flaws and virtues, just like everyone else – as opposed to the robotic, stepford-style women presented to us in the book. The characters of the movie have relationships – with men and with each other – that have ups and downs.
I’m not going to lie, I watched the commentary, by Ted Melfi (director, producer, and co-writer) and Taraji P. Hensen (who played Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson), in preparation for this review. Melfi is very clear that this movie and the scenes in it are 100 percent true and based on true events as written in Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures…and then Melfi admits to mashing three real people into one for Kevin Costner’s character (because they didn’t have the life rights to the actual head of NASA at the time). I know from reading the epilogue of the book that Dorothy Vaughan never learned how to drive, yet many of the scenes – including the first scene showing the primary characters as adults – show Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Butler, driving a car. The book does not include a NASA manager destroying the sign for the “Colored Restroom” on Langley’s campus. Instead, in the book, the signs didn’t exist in the far-flung parts of campus that the women worked in, so they assumed the bathrooms were integrated. Shetterly did collaborate on the movie, so it’s possible that they took the exciting scenes from her research that were left out of the book and used them…but I would suggest keeping in mind that Hollywood took liberties with the scenes and interactions while you watch the movie.
While the movie has dashes of the insidious racism that was prevalent during the time, the book hammers the constant awareness that black people had of the precarious situation they lived in. The movie shows Octavia Butler’s character kicked out of the library for trying to find a book in the white section. The book discusses the many civil suits that were being fought in court. The movie shows Kevin Costner destroying a “Colored Restroom” sign. The book discusses Miriam Mann removing the “Colored Computers” sign from the table at the lunchroom on a daily basis until the powers-that-be stopped making new signs. Intellectually, the realism of racism comes across a lot stronger in the book. The movie is subtle, but it makes you feel the impact of racism daily.
The movie begins only halfway through the book, skipping over the fact that the women chose to get married and have families before continuing their educations (insert cringe), worked for NACA – before it became NASA – for many years, and excluding several of their scientific contributions in aeronautics in order to focus on one specific success. One point of the book that is completely absent in the movie is the fact that America was failing. The government pushed NASA and its staff very hard to get to space first, and Russia succeeded in getting the first satellite, the first dog, and the first man in space. Worldwide, people and other governments were watching as the Cold War evolved and America failed to catch up over and over again. Politicians in the U.S., fighting the perceived tide of communism, were adamant that integration was communist and would ruin the very fabric of America. The rest of the world watched America, losing the space race and holding on to ideals that alienated more than 50 percent of the population, with cynicism. The Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War were happening simultaneously, and the irony was that one (civil rights) was the solution to the other.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the movie and the book are different. One might even say that the movie is an addendum to the book. Both of these works have something unique to say to their audience: The movie certainly makes things more relatable and easy to follow as a story, whereas the book presents a lot more facts and context that would be useful in a classroom setting, where in-depth conversations can be had about all the information presented. I wouldn’t want to be familiar with one without knowing the other. I’m glad I stuck with reading the book – even though it was hard – and I’m glad that I watched the movie because it led me to the book and more knowledge and understanding of the events that took place before America made it into space.
Do you have a favorite book-to-movie conversion? Let us know in the comments!