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FoE Book Club > Hidden Figures Discussion

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message 1: by Sheri (new)

Sheri | 833 comments Mod
Hi everyone, I just realized we're getting into October so book discussion for Hidden Figures should have started. Sorry for not being on the ball, I have been very busy the past month!

To start the discussion off, I found a few questions to trigger some discussion beyond whether we liked or disliked the book, hopefully that helps!

2. In what ways was Melvin Butler, the personnel officer at Langley, progressive in his hiring practices? In what ways was he restricted by convention? Do you think he did the best he could under the circumstances?

3. What kinds of employment opportunities were available to African American women at this time? Why is the opportunity for a job at Langley so unique to Dorothy?

5. Are the women who become “girl computers” held to a higher standard? Or do they hold themselves to one? Why or why not? In what ways is working at NACA progressive? In what ways does NACA stick to southern conventions?

If anyone else has any other questions they thing would help, or other topics to bring up, feel free to add your own!


message 2: by Megan (new)

Megan | 236 comments Thanks, Sheri, for the questions to get the discussion started! I read Hidden Figures a few months ago for an IRL book club, so a few of the details have started to fade, but I'm glad for the chance to talk about it again.

I was frankly a bit disappointed with the book based on its popularity - it's a great story, but I think it needed a co-author with a bit more distance from the community and events to put things in a broader perspective, and perhaps liven up the somewhat uninspired writing. The author appears to have sold the move rights before she was very far into writing, and the rush to finish comes through. I hope that another, perhaps more experienced, writer revisits the story in the future either in a fictionalized novel or a different take on a non-fiction approach.

As to the questions - I assume #1 is just our general thoughts, so that's why I led with mine. :)

2 - I think Mr. Butler was more open-minded than many in his position would have been, because he was clearly a creative problem solver. He found a solution to the labor shortage that saved money (due to the lower wages that could be paid to the "girls") and provided a nearly inexhaustible labor pool with little chance of workers being lured away to private sector careers. The net result of his actions obviously had a broader impact than he could have envisioned, but I think he was focused on a solution to the immediate problem rather than a grand historical statement.

3 - Most women of any race at the time were limited to what we now call the "caring" fields - housekeeping, cooking, teaching young children, etc. Non-white women were generally excluded from the slightly higher paying support jobs in office settings, so this opportunity to break into that world was unusual - and that it involved some degree of problem solving and independent analysis rather than being strictly direct support was unusual for a woman of any color.

Since there is no #4, I'll add one that has intrigued me: Other than the fact that the book was not finished when the movie began production, what do you think is the reason for the differences between the book and the movie? Particularly the almost reverse trajectory of Dorothy's path at Langley. I understand the desire to keep the movie's running time down, so many events that occurred years apart appear to occur simultaneously - but Dorothy's situation in the book was much more compelling to me than the movie's version.

5 - I think most of the computers discussed in the book knew that all eyes were on them both at home and at work. They expressed their awareness of that differently from one another, but they knew they were in a unique situation.

I look forward to hearing other thoughts - hopefully this group enjoyed Hidden Figures more than my other book Club did!


message 3: by Sheri (new)

Sheri | 833 comments Mod
I pulled questions from a longer list, haha, forgot to delete the numbers/renumber.

I kind of felt the same. I liked learning about the different women through the ages, but it seemed like she needed much more editing to pull it together into something more cohesive and easier to read. Also some things like I didn't realize Katherine Gobel WAS Katherine Johnson until she started dating the man with the last name Johnson. She also seemed to jump around a lot, so I had trouble following the different women's stories. I'd wished that she had either kept strict chronological order, or else told each woman's story in her own chapter. It jumped around too much to follow. I also agree that a novelization would be good too, which is essentially what the movie did. The basic structure was true, but things were tweaked around and embellished to tell a more coherent and watchable story.

I do tend to agree that a lot of what went on at NASA/Langley wasn't done to be progressive or broad minded, but to solve an immediate problem. Mr. Butler and the others in charge probably assumed they'd be able to fire the women as soon as better male candidates were found, until they made their place too solid to oust them.

Going to your own question, I'd say they basically tweaked things to suit their own narrative purpose. For example, in the book the restroom scene was nothing so dramatic. If I recall ( read the book at the end of last year myself), it was actually one of the other women who just refused to walk across campus to use the bathroom so started using the white bathroom without saying anything. So they obviously wanted it to be more of a statement.


message 4: by Vanessa (new)

Vanessa (vdragon) | 2 comments I enjoyed both the book and the movie. I watched the movie a few days after finishing the book. I hadn't realized that the book wasn't finished when the movie went into production. I did enjoy pointing out all the differences while watching the movie.

The book was good, I'd say the movie was much better. If you take the movie as a stand alone story, it's compelling and emotional. The book was more dry, factual, and hard to keep track of the many characters. It's a great example of how Hollywood can twist a story to make it more interesting and how we probably shouldn't believe quite everything that we see on the screen.

Katherine Johnson led a very interesting life, does Hollywood need to exaggerate to make it even more interesting?


message 5: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 140 comments I did enjoy this book, but not as much as I expected to. I am a big fan of "history of science" types of books (and in fact that is pretty much the only history I read), but this wasn't exactly that. I didn't feel that I had a very good picture of what the women actually did. I'm sure part of that is because of the abstruse math involved, but I'd rather have a book push my techinical understanding too far rather than the opposite. I wonder if the author really understood it herself. I agree with everyone else that it could have used some editing into a more coherent package. For example, Christine Darden's story seemed almost squeezed in as an afterthought following the initial focus on the other three characters.
I think the author may have gone a bit far trying to emphasize the women's importance. Obviously their work was important, but so was the work of everyone else in the organization. (I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the NASA janitor explaining his job as "helping to put a man on the moon".) Sometimes I felt like the author was a little forced in her awe of the women's contributions. Their story is interesting because they were barrier-breakers, not because they were of particular importance within NACA/NASA, and I think that's OK. Fundamentally, this was a civil rights story, and I appreciated that aspect of it. I was surpised to learn of Virginia's refusal to integrate, even after the Supreme Court ruling against segregation! That may have been the most shocking part of the book for me.
Like Vanessa, I watched the movie after reading the book, although there were a few weeks in between for me. Knowing the "true" story took a bit away from the exaggerations/inaccuracies of the film version, but I think the movie really benefitted from the reduction in scope. The focus on a briefer period of time allowed for a more natural narrative arc, telescoping everything down to Project Mercury and getting Glenn into orbit. Most of the changes seemed to be made in order to serve that narrative, so I was mostly OK with them, but I must say that I didn't care for the bit about Mary Jackson's shoe getting stuck in the wind tunnel chamber. I guess maybe they were going for the "everything the men do but backwards and in heels" point, but I preferred the story in the book of her running into Czarnecki and venting her frustrations, leading him to offer her a job on his team. I wish they had somehow worked that in instead of the shoe thing.


message 6: by Alexa (new)

Alexa | 37 comments Finally got my copy from the library. I’m listening to the audiobook and the question that I would like to ask everyone who has already read it: is the awkward flow that sometimes happens because of the author, because of the narrator, or both?


message 7: by Sheri (new)

Sheri | 833 comments Mod
Alexa, probably the author. I liked the book over all but part of my issue with it was that it was disjointed. I read it thought, not listen


message 8: by Alexa (new)

Alexa | 37 comments I forgot to post, but I finished a couple of days ago. I can’t help but to compare it to The Boys in the Boat. Hidden Figures suffers from being a freshman work, where the author is finding her voice. TBitB is written by an author who knows how to tie a bunch of different threads into the cohesive story.
I loved learning about the different women and how the world events all happened, but it was hard to follow sometimes.
The saddest part for me was the realization that we haven’t progressed enough in 60+ years.


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