Review of “Hidden Figures”

I read “Hidden Figures”, and am looking forward to seeing the movie.

I was drawn to the book because it is a biography of women who accomplish unexpected and extraordinary things despite the many hurdles in their paths. As a woman who loved Mathematics and excelled at it and who still enjoys working with complex data, I felt a special connection to the three heroines of the book.

The real Hidden Figures
The real Hidden Figures

However, the biggest payoff for me was reading about the author’s personal connection to the story and her description of why the story matters.

The practical side of me tends to be enthralled by stories of heroism or sacrifice that provide some sort of an answer to the “so what” question. How does the story illuminate the  present moment? What can we learn from the story? I found very satisfying answers to these questions in “Hidden Figures.”

Here is a sampling:

To a first-time author with no background as a historian, the stakes involved in writing about a topic that was virtually absent from the history books felt high…. I knew I would have to apply the same kind of analytical reasoning to my research as these women applied to theirs.

I relate to this and I like knowing that there is an analytical component to the research that I have undertaken.  Historical research is not only about finding something that happened long ago. It is about placing it in context (then as well as now) and making a sincere attempt to glean its significance.

However, the fact that the topic is virtually absent from the history books also brings great opportunity. It offers readers and viewers who are hungry for the information gathered and it offers a clean slate on which to portray the drama.

Additionally, when the biographer has a personal connection to the story in the form of a shared history, it provides a unique energy and insight to the biographer’s  work.

~~~

The body of work they left behind was a revelation.

This has been my experience as well. The letters that Anandi and Theodocia exchanged first got me hooked. Then, it was the words that people who knew Anandi used to describe her. Here was an exceptional human being and her story deserved to be honored as well as known.

~~~

My investigation became more like an obsession. I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.

I can relate.

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I was determined to prove their existence and their talent in a way that meant that they would never again be lost to history…. What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved… not at the margins… and not just because they are black, but because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.

My book has two main heroines – Anandi and Theodocia. It has other unexpected American heroines like the Dean of the college (Rachel Bodley) and the biographer Caroline Dall. And, it has unexpected British ones like the unknown teacher Miss Dobson, Queen Elizabeth (indirectly) Ladies Dufferin and Reay (in bit parts).  This makes the story I am telling an Indian epic, and an American / British one as well.

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There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all ethnicities, races, genders, ages and backgrounds.

This has definitely been my experience. The most memorable example was a physical therapist who was treating me. When she asked me what I was doing that weekend and I told her I was planning to attend the Biographers International conference, she was intrigued. As I responded to her many questions about my project, she said, “I have goosebumps just from hearing the story!”

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It is a story of hope that even among some of our country’s harshest realities… there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.

What I would also add is that there is evidence that even in the middle of those harsh realities, their emerge “angels” — people who silently subvert those realities in the interest of progress and fairness and simply because they cannot bear to be passive upholders of the status quo. Also, that our world needs the talents and hard work of each one of us and when segments of the population are left down and out, society as a whole is that much poorer.

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More disheartening is how often we look into the national mirror to see no reflection at all. no discernible fingerprint on what is considered history with a capital H.

I have felt this… in the contexts of both countries I call home, which are also the countries in which the story I am telling takes place.

~~~

But perhaps most important, Katherine Johnson’s story can be a doorway to the stories of all the other women, black and white, whose contributions have been overlooked.

It is my hope that Anandi’s story will open the doorway to the stories of the struggles and contributions of women in traditional societies (not just in India) who have triumphed as well as those who are still waiting for progress to reach them (present day child brides). As well, I hope it will a doorway to the stories of the men and women who nurture their daughters just as much as they do their sons (Malala Yousufzai’s father). Finally, I hope that it will shed light on men and women who were and are fortunate to belong to the empowered class and who used/use that privilege to actively work to help those who were/are less so.

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