AUDIO: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review published on March 3, 2017.

I love discovering ‘unknown’ true-life stories about real people who made a difference to our lives but never received proper credit for it. This reminded me of Henrietta Lacks and her story (also being made into a film), and the style of the book also reminded me of this one.

This is a fascinating story – the black women who worked behind the scenes at NASA preparing flight paths for the first space explorations of the 1960s. This is their story, as well as the story of how NASA got off the ground.

We meet several women who featured heavily in the story. Each is given time to have their background and family explored, as well as how they each made their way to a job in what would eventually become NASA. While the stories themselves are interesting, the book is written in a rather dry style, featuring no speech or interaction. It’s all ‘told’ to us by the narrator, much in the same way as Henrietta Lacks’ story unfolds, although I found this harder to listen to than to read, since it all feels like one long lecture with no let-up. I admit I did tune out sometimes, though I didn’t want to.

The narrator has a very easy voice to listen to, personable and expressive, very clear and precise, which helped, but the style of the narrative might be one that works best when read for oneself as a written account.

The most interesting parts of the book are not elaborated on as much as I wanted – the racism and prejudicial treatment the women underwent. Being both women AND black, they lived through times of momentous change, and the author talks about what they had to suffer (separate tables in the cafeteria, toilets possibly only accessible in other buildings, lower pay, lower status), but without their input and comments, it felt like a description rather than a life lived at points.

The social history and change of the period is well covered, though I did feel sometimes that I’d heard parts before, without being able to refer back – some things were certainly mentioned more than once.

I was glad to see the epilogue included, talking about the women’s lives after NASA and the moon landings, knowing what they and their families did with their lives in later years. It completed the story that had seen the women through from their young lives and I felt as though they were suitably commemorated and acknowledged.

I’m not sure the style quite suits an audio format, and I admit I wasn’t keen on the science/maths parts during which I felt rather lost, but the story of a group of women who pushed boundaries and made long-lasting differences for their families, gender, communities and the world at large is one that fully deserves to be told and remembered.

I now look forward to seeing the film and cementing the different women and their different stories in my head.

Katy Noyes 4/4

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
HarperCollins Audiobook Sep 2016

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