Saturday, April 15, 2017

African American Genre Annotation

Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterley

William Morrow Pub. (2016)
ISBN: 978-0062363596
Available formats:  HardcoverPaperback


"Just as islands...have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying...overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.  The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history.  It's a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling." (p. xv)

This is an account of an extraordinary moment in history when a door opened and African American women walked through it to join white men at the forefront of the Space Race.  It revolves around 4 particular women, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden, describing their lives, their families, their hopes, and their greatest challenges.  It's almost like a 4-part biography wrapped in a historical event.  Each woman is introduced, along with her family and educational background and her own personal dreams and needs.  She's then woven into the narrative of the Langley Laboratory and the amazing story of how this group of black women became a force for positive social change in one of the most prestigious and leading industry's in the country at that time.  The story is about this change and the tremendous impact it had on the women (of all colors, though especially black) who followed.  

Characteristics of this Book

Story:  Historical documentary.  If you like history, particularly history regarding race relations and how they've evolved, then you'll like this book.  It's not like a novel, but more like a treatise or exposition; we learn about the characters and the things that happened to them, or that they did, but we don't get into their minds very much.  

Pacing:  Very slow and studious, densely written.

Setting:  The story is set in Hampton, Virginia from the early '40s to the late '60s, mostly in the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory.  It's a setting that combines the racial issues of a smallish, southern college town with a highly educated and technological government research facility.  

Tone:  Thoughtful and insightful, explanations and facts are presented without being overly emotional, but with a sense of strength and admiration.  There's a sense of optimism and pragmatism laced throughout the book.  

Style:  Informative. Understated and elegant writing.  You get a real sense of the time and place with the use of common local terminology such as calling the women "computers" and referring to the Langley facility as "Mother Langley".  

Characterization:  The women in the book are described as real people with varying attributes, standards, goals, ethics, and personalities.  Although we don't enter their heads like we do with most fiction, we do get a very full sense of who they are based on personal and family interviews, letters, and other memorabilia.  It makes you want to meet them in person!  

Appeal terms:  Insightful, uplifting, encouraging, informative, studious, complex, very real 

Personal Note

If you pick up this book expecting it to be similar in feel or scope to the movie, as I did (although I haven't seen the movie, only the trailers), you'll be in for a big surprise.  This is a historical documentary.  Although it's centered loosely around the 4 women, it's really a very thorough treatise of the cultural and racial issues faced by black American working women of the time.

It's a little confusing and hard to follow since the author jumps around frequently; one paragraph she's describing Dorothy's marital difficulties because of her new job, and then suddenly we're into an anecdote about peeking at German POWs, then the neighbor's daughter and her education and marriage, and then we're on the bus with Dorothy on the way to begin the job that would later cause the marital difficulties we started the chapter with.  The book doesn't flow well, making it hard to really get "into", but close reading reveals wonderfully insightful gems such as "Who would have thought that such a mélange of black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar workers, those who worked with their hands and those who worked with numbers, was actually possible?  And who would guess that the southern city of Hampton, Virginia, was the place to find it?"  Unfortunately, you  have to be willing to slog through a lot of other minutiae to get to the good stuff.  It worth it, though, because most other African American works I've seen are either about slavery prior to the Civil War, black experience during Reconstruction, black soldiers, or the 60's Civil Rights Movement.  The book fills in a gap in both time period and gender stories, on the brink of what the author justly calls America's "great transformations".

I ultimately found it ok, but couldn't get into it - too jumpy.


Movie!  Yay!  Of course this book has been made into a movie which just came out this year in January.  I haven't seen it yet since I had wanted to read the book first.  There's a great interview with the author here, where she talks about the differences between the book and the movie, saying that the movie only focuses on one particular event, where the book gives a much deeper and broader account (she still likes the movie, though).  

Official Book Trailer

1 comment:

  1. I love your descriptive summary and personal note. I've heard the same thing from other people. Great job, full points!