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Publisher's Summary

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.

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.

©2016 Margot Lee Shetterly (P)2016 HarperCollins Publishers

Critic Reviews

"Robin Miles narrates the true story of four black women whose work as mathematicians helped break the sound barrier, and set the stage for space exploration.... Miles warmly profiles these hard-working women and their significant contributions to a field still dominated by white men.... Miles's inflections, rhythm, and pace move the story forward in a fascinating timeline of events." ( AudioFile)

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 09-18-16

Great Story of a History Obscured

I live in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where NASA's JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is hidden at the top of the Arroyo Seco. Riding the Metro Gold Line east to historic Monrovia from Los Angeles' lovingly maintained Art Deco/Mission Revival style Union Station, you'd never guess the gleaming light rail tracks cross and recross secret washes and gullies where the engines that would take people to the moon and beyond were tested.

NASA didn't just hide its rockets - it hid its people, too, and across the country. "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016) is an exploration of Black women in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915 - 1958) and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), especially at Langley Air Force Base.

Langley is by Hampton and Newport News, Virginia. Jim Crow laws - the so-called state law "separate but equal" laws - were in force for the entirety of NACA. Langley followed state laws, which meant that highly educated and talented women from then Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) were calculating ballistic trajectories during World War II - and then eating lunch in the "Colored" area. Black women calculators were absolutely crucial to the war effort, but couldn't use the same bathrooms as their White colleagues. Margot Lee Shetterly's writing is so empathetic that I felt the burn of anger that super human computer Katherine Johnson and her coworkers felt.

I love that the book has such a thorough discussion of actual segregation, and the key role that Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993) had in ending it. When the US Supreme Court abolished separate Black schools in Brown v Board of Education (1954) 347 US 483, some school districts in Virginia closed for years rather than integrate - which meant that some children, Black and White, were denied years of schooling. Just the logistics of being a working mother without child care must have been daunting. Shetterly reminds us that Brown and the forced integration in Little Rock, AR, were not the end of educational discrimination - they were the beginning of an end that hasn't happened yet.

Shetterly's book is pretty good on the social issues, but I found it hard to follow the women's lives. The book jumped from topic to topic and different eras. There's such a great discussion of Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha that when I came across their booth at my daughter's college fair this week, I was awed. AKA didn't come up until the last part of the book, even though it was part of the women's lives from the beginning.

I was disappointed the physics and chemistry of flight, missiles, rocketry and space exploration weren't well explained. Shetterly lightly addresses what human calculators did. Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon" (2016), the story of women computers at Southern California's JPL, has a great discussion of the science. The difference might be because "Hidden Figures" was optioned and filmed as a major motion picture before it was published as a book. The book was released September 6, 2016; and the movie is being released either at Christmas, 2016 or January 13, 2017 - after this review was written.

Even though I found parts of the book a little meandering and lacking in depth, I'm giving the book and audible performance my highest rating and recommendation. It's a great story, and one that deserves a listen.

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250 of 273 people found this review helpful

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  • Jami
  • VICTOR, NY, United States
  • 02-05-18

Interesting Subject

The subject matter was excellent and well researched; I was fascinated with the stories of these women and their contributions to the space program.

That being said, I agree with several other reviewers who noted that is hard to fully engage with these women's stories because of the way the information is presented. It more like a documentary than a personal account, so you don't feel a personal connection with these fascinating ladies. Also, the author jumps around frequently, which doesn't help with the story presentation. I listened to this on audio, but I think that the movie may help with the emotional connection. I probably will see the movie at some point, now that I have this background.

While this is a story about the contributions of the Black women, these women also helped other women, regardless of their race, with their careers, which is also noteworthy. Even today, there are stories about companies having trouble recruiting women for the STEM fields; without these women's contributions, there would be even fewer women in these fields today.

It is astounding to think of the trust that everyone had to place in the calculations of these human computers. Lives depended on their accuracy, and they certainly came through. It is worth noting that it took some time to get used to the use of the term "computers" to refer to people instead of machines.

There was a great quote in this book: "The best thing about breaking a barrier is that it won't have to be broken again." I love that quote and what it represents. There was another important observation in this book near the end, and that was when the author brings out that these women do not want to stand out for their differences, but their talents; and that is as it should be.

50 of 54 people found this review helpful

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I wanted to like this...

Boy, I wanted to like this. Feminism! Black power! Women in STEM! What’s not to love?

Ugh, the story is not to love. It’s confusingly written and makes a would-be compelling subject droll. I’m happy this book was written and thrilled it got picked up by Hollywood, but I cannot recommend the writing.

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

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Black Herstory

I am a fifty-seven year old black woman who was raised during the sixties and seventies. My father taught his children to learn about their roots and to hold themselves with dignity. I attended classes on African history in High school, but until now the story of black female mathematicians was completely unknown to me.

This the story of young women of color who joined NACA before it became NASA in the war years. How they were called 'computers' who worked equations in order to bring about proper construction for airplanes such as the B-29 Super Fortress and many others.

That alone should be enough to draws in the listener, the sheer scope of what these women accomplished during the time of segregation is simply amazing.

Robin Miles reading gives the story an elegant air, the reader will not be disappointed.

232 of 256 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Fascinating story, poorly told

I really wanted to love this book. As a female in a male dominated technical field I thought it would be bread and butter for me. Instead, I found the narrative structure confusing. The jumps between people and time and barrage of names distracted and lessened the impact of the story's relevance and power.

91 of 100 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Ooportunity Missed

This could have been a great book. The story is a little-known one. Unfortunately, we never really get to know these amazing women. There is more time spent on the ills of segregation than on developing the lives of these incredible "computers". Their contributions were enormous, but they are marginalized in this book for the sake of constant reminders of the hard times of that era. I totally agree...segregation was horrible. I can't imagine the hardships these women and their families went through. But, once we had a lesson about their courage and determination in the face of great odds, I would have loved to learn more about them, what they did, and how they did it. This book never took me there. The author missed a huge opportunity to tell us all about their accomplishments--women who helped to shape the future of this country's air and space programs.

The narrator was monotonous, and I had a hard time staying engaged. There was no enthusiasm. Every word was spoken in the same flat tone. As much as I looked forward to listening to this book, I'm terribly disappointed--I was bored. I can only hope the movie will be better.

173 of 192 people found this review helpful

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Something's missing

What would have made Hidden Figures better?

I think the book could use more chronological cohesion, as well as more science and a clearer character introduction.

Would you be willing to try another book from Margot Lee Shetterly? Why or why not?

I wouldn't have chosen this book if it weren't for my book club, and even so it was under my expectations, so probably not any time soon.

Any additional comments?

Maybe I'm just not that into nonfiction. While the subject seemed promising, and the historical and social themes definitely vital, there was something in the storytelling that simply put me off. I dragged the audiobook for a whole month, and it helped me fall asleep more often than not. Even when reading straight (as opposed to going back to re-read the chapter I fell asleep a few minutes into) I distinctly got the impression I've heard this before. Also as a purely personal preference, I'd have expected way more science out of it, but I have to admit I rarely understood what any of these pioneers was actually working on. Mathematics and physics have this mystical, black box aura throughout the book that I really would not file this book under the Science tab. And for a nonfiction book, the author really makes a point of expressing on every page what she thinks this and that character are feeling.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Read this book before you see the movie!

so much of our history is hidden from us. This is an extremely good example of how the contributions of young black women in the forties all the way up through current times. For what reason, I have no idea. These women are so inspirational regardless of your color or gender.

85 of 95 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Loved the details

This book not only opened my eyes to a part of history that I did not realize existed but it also brought to my attention of the role of women so overlook and underpaid. I enjoyed all the details and descriptions of all these women. So happy their stories have finally been told!

53 of 59 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Coulda Shoulda

I was born in Hampton, Virginia in 1959. My father was stationed at Langley at the time and worked peripherally on the space program. I would love to have been able to pick his brain on the subject but unfortunately he passed several years ago. It was with that backdrop that I picked up this with great enthusiasm. I was hoping that this story would give these women the rich treatment they deserve but it falls short. It just feels like someone reading a text book to me and you never really get to fully know these women. You find out what happened to them and the events that shaped their lives but you never really get to know them, not really. Don't get me wrong, as a historical text it delves into fascinating and very important issues but it just never really lives up to what it could have been.

22 of 24 people found this review helpful