Friday Reads: Hidden Figures

“Friday Reads” is a weekly blog written by reference librarian Faith Lee about great books, magazines, and the occasional reference work.    Blogs may be about new titles added to the library, selections from the Staff Picks shelf or about something she recently read.  Admittedly, there is a definite slant toward nonfiction, because, well, she’s a reference librarian and likes to learn new things.  Guest bloggers take a turn sometimes too.  No matter the source, good reads are featured here. 

We had a big group this week at the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club.  We were all primed to discuss Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.  You may recognize the title from the 2016 Oscar nominated film by the same name, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

The cover of the Hidden Figures explains, “During World War II, America’s fledgling aeronautics industry hired black female mathematicians to fill a labor shortage.  These ‘human computers’ stayed on to work for NASA and made sure America won the Space Race.  They fought for their country’s future, and for their share of the American dream.  This is their untold story.”

The month prior, we read The Rise of the Rocket Girls:  the women who propelled us from missiles to the moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt, which made for a rich comparison this week.  The two books are about the same thing (female computers) working for the same purpose (to send missiles, rockets and then men into space for NASA) at the same time (1940s through 1960s), but on different coasts and with contrasting groups of women.  Hidden Figures takes place at Langley Research Center in Virginia and focuses on a group of black women, whereas The Rise of the Rocket Girls takes place at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California where most women were white.  There were one black and a few Asian “rocket girls,” but race does not factor into the narrative by Holt. One group member commented that the titles of the two books good easily be swapped and they would still make sense.

Interestingly, they were published 5 months apart (Holt’s was first in April, 2016) and both authors got the idea for their book in 2010 when each of them accidentally learned about a woman working for NASA.  In Shetterly’s case, her Sunday school teacher and another woman she knew from childhood were both computers at Langley, but she didn’t know about their professional lives until her father casually mentioned it when she was an adult.  To her, they were just part of the fabric of her neighborhood.  Holt was googling baby name ideas for the impending birth of her daughter and learned that an Eleanor Frances, a name she was considering, worked at the JPL in the 1960s, and won an award.  Surprised that women worked for NASA, both writers set out to learn more and both found compelling stories, simultaneously, but independently.

Many of us were a little hard pressed to follow the math and science in detail, but all of us were eager to learn about the women and their struggles, how they balanced their home and professional lives, how they fought for equality in the workplace and were respected for their great achievements.  Both of these books are great for a book club because there are so many issues to explore you can only benefit from hearing a variety of perspectives.

Join us next month when we discuss Evicted:  poverty and profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.   Focusing on poverty and classism, this book is the first in our new 6-month series about social justice.   Each month we will read about a different aspect of social justice from a narrative, not a scholarly, voice.   Pick up a copy of the book at the reference desk and come share your thoughts with us on Thursday, October 5 at 10 AM in the Hermann Foundation Meeting room.

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