I find the concept of rating non-fiction books to be very difficult for me because the review is no longer about the story, characters and plot, but about how the information is presented to the reader.
Shetterly's material is fresh; it's raw, and at least for me, untouched on. There are so many things in her book I was surprised by. Never in my wildest mind could I begin to imagine the scope of black history as it relates to the all American dream of space flight and even before that to the fields of science and math. I like that Shetterly chose a subject that deals not with a single person but with a collective group and how each person's strides, their small battles with segregation, work place inequality, and sexism helped pave the way for future generations. That this isn't just a story about these hidden black women and men, but about white women who had their own struggles as well as white men who were forced to tackle and come to grips with the fact that gender and color don't define intelligence. For this and this alone I feel that this subject matter is something that all people should become acquainted with.
Having said that I found my actual reading of this book to be less fun that I originally thought it would be. The book starts out strong, introducing us to the early life of Dorothy Vaughn, how she struggled with employment even with the level of intelligence she had. I was fully invested at that point, about learning what constitutes as a "good black job" and a "very good black job". The problem for me is that as Shetterly adds more characters, I begin to loose track of the original characters. Some people such as Christine Darden are mentioned in passing in the very beginning and we don't learn of their importance or their stories until hundred's of pages later (or in her case, the epilogue.) And because of the age differences between the women Shetterly staggers them into her plot, but in doing so it leaves some women missing from the book for many chapters and upon their return leaves me wondering what woman did what when. I think that the information would have been more interestingly presented if each chapter showed the women and what they were doing relative to each other based on the timeline.
Another thing I felt Shetterly struggled with was focus. Having read her prologue I can understand that she has close ties to this topic and that it's very near and dear to her heart. As such I felt like she had a hard time separating out Langley from the world around it. She wanted us to know everything that fascinated her through her entire life but as such makes it harder to her readers to follow along. All of the history is important to tell but there is a time and place for it. Sometimes I felt I had a better understanding of what A. Randolph Philips and M.L.K were doing than what Mary Houston was accomplishing. Also I wanted her to focus of the specifics of what these women were accomplishing. Later in the book when it mentions Katherine Johnson's paper on "what if the computers fail" the book focuses more on the training of astronaut Jim Lovell to guide Apollo 13 home than the effects her paper had on the field of science. For these figures who have spent so much time hidden in the annals of history, I want to know about their accomplishments. How did Johnson calculate using the stars as guidance in lieu of a computer? How was this theory actually tested correctly during the Apollo 8 mission? In essence I wanted more minute history mixed with their over reaching accomplishments and less world history which was so present that at some points almost felt as if Shetterly was trying to marry two books into one.
Having said this, by the time I reached the end of this short history I was more than happy to be done reading it. It's lack of focus kept me from focusing as I tried to digest these important stories. I found myself zoning out at points and having to reread. When I set out to read this book I had no thoughts as to whether I would watch the movie, preferring to have the unadulterated truth as opposed to the Hollywood spin, but having finished I actually want to watch the movie just to see if the information is better organized and if the visual will help me digest better the remarkable accomplishments of these women.