Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Genre: Nonfiction/Biography/U.S. History
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
Published: September 2016
Number of Pages: 368
Hidden Figures is best known by the recent Hollywood film by the same name. The book likewise follows the real lives of several African American women who did influential work for NASA during the Space Race. Although several women are mentioned, Shetterly focuses on the lives and careers of four in particular: Katherine Johnson (mathematician), Dorothy Vaughn (computer programmer), Mary Jackson (aerospace engineer and equal opportunity advocate), and Christine Darden (aerospace engineer). (Christine was much younger than the other three and was still a child when they first started at NASA; she followed in their footsteps, which most-likely why she wasn’t depicted in the movie.)
One thing that does not come across in the movie is that Margot Lee Shetterly’s own father was a research scientist at NASA around the same time. In fact, Shetterly grew up knowing a few of the women she eventually wrote about. The effect for the reader is a personalized view of history. Most biographies take on a purely historical view, but Shetterly manages to infuse the idea that this is, in a small way, part of her own story, without taking any ownership away from the women whose lives she chronicles.
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: May 6, 2014
Number of Pages: 544
Marie-Laure is a young girl growing up in Paris. She lives with her father and goes with him to work every day at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle where he is the museum’s locksmith. When she is six, Marie-Laure finally loses the last of her failing eyesight due to congenital cataracts and becomes permanently blind. This does not deter her curiosity—especially when it comes to shelled sea creatures.
Werner is a young boy growing up in an orphanage in a small German mining town with his younger sister named Jutta. He has an endless supply of impossible questions and spends his days interrogating the world. One day, Werner finds an old radio at the town dump and decides to fix it. The small boy is soon the town authority on radios.
Though they are from warring countries and lead very different lives, the novel weaves together the stories and Marie-Laure and Werner as they grow from children to young adults during World War II. This is much more than a coming of age tale, though— Doerr also explores the role of radio throughout the story. In interviews, Doerr has said that he specifically chose this setting because it was a time when communicating with someone far away without visible wires still felt magical.
Personal Side Note: This is one of my all-time favorite books.
The Ties That Bind
Warning: Mild spoilers follow in the form of small details or plot points.
Nothing major will be given away.
Both books chronicle a time when big technological advances were happening. More than that though, there is an interesting parallel between the life trajectories of Dorothy Vaughn and Werner.
In Hidden Figures, we learn that Dorothy Vaughn was college-educated and taught high school for several years. In 1915, the U.S. set up the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to develop and test cutting-edge military planes. (NACA eventually became NASA and the primary focus became space exploration.) During WWII, Dorothy was hired by NACA as a human computer—someone whose job it was to calculate complicated math problems by hand. She held this job for many years and eventually became a well-respected supervisor. As technology progressed, however, mechanical computers began to make human computers obsolete. Undaunted, Dorothy Vaughn learned FORTRAN (1960s computer code) and became a computer programmer for NASA.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Werner grew up in an orphanage in a small coal-mining town where all boys were required to become miners at age fifteen. Soldiering wasn’t even an option. Thanks to his radio skills, however, Werner is noticed by a Nazi official and sent to a boarding school whose mission is to transform boys into soldiers. The school quickly recognizes Werner’s talents and puts him to work designing radio transmitters to help with the war effort.
Although one story is decidedly more cheerful than the other, both Dorothy and Werner are able to change their own career paths by immersing themselves in new technology and making themselves indispensable. Both were recognized by superiors for their self-made talents and rewarded for them.
NOTE ON THE BLOG POST TITLE: Title of a song by The Hours
The Robberbride by Margaret Atwood and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner