Monthly Archives: March 2014

Writing beautifully, wearing research lightly: Rebecca Skloot’s achievements in her book on Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta_Lacks_(1920-1951)

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Macmillan, 2010) is an exemplar of creative non-fiction, an intriguing combination of biographical quest and popular science. It was ten years in the writing, as Skloot lived off student loans and credit cards on her quest to follow the story of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and seem to be immortal, multiplying and living on for decades, and used in thousands of medical breakthroughs.

In her long acknowledgements, Skloot writes that one of her friends ‘taught me to care deeply about story structure’ (Loc 5157), and Immortal Life is indeed a brilliantly structured story. Through much of the book, Skloot alternates chapters retelling the life and afterlife of Henrietta and her cells with chapters recounting Skloot’s own quest through the late 1990s and 2000s to uncover the story. A simple but invaluable orienting device is a timeline indicator at the start of each chapter. Other biographies and histories should consider using it. While Skloot is in the action and gives a couple of biographical clues about herself in the prologue (‘I grew up white and agnostic’; she mentions a marriage and divorce during the writing of the book), for the rest of the book she remains restrainedly silent about her own life, except to the extent it directly affects the quest.

chapter-guide

From Chapter 29, it is Skloot herself who is at the centre of the afterlife of Henrietta and for the final eight chapters, the quest is recounted chronologically, with the focus on Skloot’s relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who has been deeply affected by the legacy of what happened to her mother, and the way her contribution to science has been long unacknowledged. She mentions in passing that an editor who “insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident” (loc 217). While the troubles of the disadvantaged Lacks family and their attempts to deal with Henrietta’s legacy are so important to Skloot’s purpose and the achievements of the book, the editor may have been onto something, however misguided and extreme her remedy. Those final eight chapters almost feel they could be from a different book. The beautiful, understated writing of the rest of the book is overwhelmed by long sections of dialogue from Deborah and the others. It’s captured well, and it’s a story worth telling; I wonder, though, if it needed condensing and balancing.

One of the accomplishments of this book is the way Skloot wears a decade of research so lightly. There are no footnotes through the book, but notes on the sources for each chapter at the end. The book reads more like a novel than most biographies; Skloot has managed to find enough detail to show as much as she tells. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter one:

On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children— two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer , and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop. (loc 239-245)

She interviewed David Lacks while he still alive, so some of the detail must come from him; she also references the research she did on segregation, and she visited the hospital, observing the Jesus statue and presumably the oak tree. But did she know he parked under it on that day? If she couldn’t be sure, was it an acceptable guess? I’m not sure, but I am in awe of the way her book manages to read as one that is simultaneously meticulously researched and beautifully written.


KSP’s Black Opal: a saint and a singer in a utopia under threat

1934-slnsw

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge. It has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations.

Perhaps the truer title would be Fallen Star Ridge, as the novel is focused on the opal mining community itself as an ideal. Between the publication of her first novel, The Pioneers, and this one, KSP had committed to communism, and the influence is evident. In chapter VIII of part I, the narrative stops and KSP paints a picture of the workers’ utopia the settlement represents.

Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say.  (64-5)

To a man, Ridge miners have decided against allowing any wealthy man, or body of wealthy men forming themselves into a company, to buy up the mines, put the men on a weekly wage, and work them, as the opal blocks at Chalk Cliffs had been worked. (65)

The utopia is threatened first by missing opals (who stole from their brother?) and then an attempt by the American, John Armitage, to buy up the mines. As a kind of utopia, it is rendered convincingly, a plausible depiction of how people might have led a  co-operative existence a century ago in rural Australia.

Central to the utopia is Michael, a saintly autodidact who looks after the needy in the community and quietly dispenses wisdom. I can’t help wondering if KSP imagined a similar role for herself, if she was to ever find herself living within a workers’ community; she must have often wondered how to reconcile her bookishness with her commitment to the working class. The workers of the Ridge are not the anti-intellectuals one might assume:

Ridge folk were proud of Michael’s books, and strangers who saw his miscellaneous collection – mostly of cheap editions, old school books, and shilling, sixpenny, and penny publications of literary masterpieces, poetry, and works on industrial and religious subjects – did not wonder that it impressed Ridge folk; or that Michael’s knowledge of the world and affairs was so extensive. He had tracts, leaflets, and small books on almost every subject under the sun. (9)

At the beginning of the novel, Michael makes a promise to Sophie’s dying mother that he will make sure she does not leave the safety of the Ridge for the evils of the world beyond it. Trying to keep this promise is nearly his undoing; it is to no avail – Sophie leaves, which is nearly her undoing.

Spoilers Ahead Continue reading


Moving Among Strangers: Gabrielle Carey remembers the dead

I couldn’t put down Gabrielle Carey’s memoir, Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family (UQP, 2013), so in one important sense, it is a successful book. Yet I was reading it most of all to learn more about the enigmatic Western Australian writer Stow, and on Stow the book intensifies the mystery of the man, whetting my appetite for more without satisfying.

Carey’s mother was friends with Stow when they were both young, and she wrote to him when her mother was dying. After a brief correspondence remembering the links between the families and mentioning some things Carey never knew about her own family, Stow retreated from further contact and died not long after. Carey attended the tribute held in his honour in Perth, and the trip prompted her to re-establish contact with the estranged Perth side of her family. She finds herself embarked on two quests: to understand the secret lives of her parents, and to understand the reason for Stow’s retreat to England to work a barman and publish very little in the last forty years of his life. The connection between the two strands does not always feel strong enough, or more that they seem such different goals. At one point Carey comments on what a messy person she is, and it is a messy book in some ways (in a good and bad way), delighting in co-incidence between the two quests and moving forward with a kind of stream of consciousness. It has the immediacy and pace of a quickly written book, and also some of the lack of polish.

Carey is careful to tell Stow’s associates that she is not his biographer (p. 207); ‘Stow already had an authorised biographer who had actually met him and interviewed him and had been working on his project for more than ten years. My book was something else, although I didn’t try to explain what. I wasn’t sure myself.’ I hope this book is only an appetiser for Roger Averill’s book, when it finally appears, and that it will be the successful account of Stow’s life which Stow deserves and the biographer no doubt deserves after so long invested in the project. (Earlier in the book, she briefly describes meeting Averill in the UWA Reid Cafe, and I couldn’t help imagining I could have been there, typing away on my laptop, not aware of the conversation going on nearby.)

Carey is indiscreet and opinionated, saying things many people would not put in print (‘I…deceived my last husband to have an affair with a younger man from my yoga class’), and perhaps her disarming honesty is part of the book’s appeal. Her judgements are often funny; sometimes grating, when she says something I don’t like, such as generalisations about Western Australia.

It feels to me that the real subject is Carey herself, and that is only a problem if one is wanting the real subject to be something else. I think I tend to find every memoir a little indulgent, which is probably largely an attitude I was brought up with. It might also be the attitude of a biographer, for whom the focus should be on the other, the historical subject one is recovering.

That said, I am fascinated by the genre of biographical quest, and this book has strong elements of it. The quest to uncover the truth of the subjects reveals things the protagonist never knew about their heritage and about their character. It leads them to exotic places (well, Perth, Geraldton and Old Harwich). Some of the story is told in the letters of the subjects. All these elements are present; it’s just that Carey is not trying to produce a true biography of either her mother or Stow, but a memoir of the quest itself. A book should never be judged by what it is not trying to be, and it really is an interesting book.


Benumbed by facts?

Reviewing Stella, Jill Roe’s massive biography of Miles Franklin (Fourth Estate, 2008), Sylvia Martin sums up a fascinating debate between two other reviewers:

A writer who has left some sort of a record of almost every day of her adult life would seem to be the perfect subject for a biographer, but it can prove to be a mixed blessing and I think it has here. In her mostly positive review, Goldsworthy argues that the ‘empiricist historian’ approach leads to a wealth of detail that can cause the reader to become ‘benumbed by facts’, an opinion to which Hergenhan takes exception, claiming that ‘[r]eaders will deeply feel the density of the representation of the living out of the life’…
(History Australia, 89.1, 2009)

Where there’s a scarcity of information on a subject, the biographer is forced to read the fragments deeply and make much of them. Where there’s the glut of information, as in this case, it’s harder to get to what really matters.

The full passage from Goldsworthy’s review is:

Roe’s approach to the art of biography is traditional and straightforward:  she  is  an  empiricist  historian  and  that  is her methodology. The book is a magnificent feat of exhaustive research, but that in itself has one major disadvantage: the reader must plough through lists of meetings that Franklin  went  to,  friends  she  visited, relatives  with  whom  she  corresponded  and  even,  at  one  point, the  specifications  of the  ship  on which  she  sailed  to  America. While these  catalogues go  some way towards conveying the dense texture of Franklin’s life, there is too  little  summary  and  pulling-together of the details; every now and then  the reader must simply stop,  benumbed  by  facts. (ABR, February 2009)

Sylvia Martin goes on to write:

Goldsworthy  wishes  the  biographer  had  delved  more  into  the  realm  of  speculation  and opinion; Hergenhan claims she ‘calculatingly stands back, leaving readers free to “speculate”’. Roe herself wrote in an earlier publication that ‘[a] strictly historical approach should go a long way to resolving the paradoxes’ of Miles Franklin’s life. But can such an approach, even if the ‘life’ is contextualised as thoroughly as this one is, make for a satisfying biography? Biography is a hybrid genre and the narrative strategies employed to shape the life in question as well as the biographer’s own interpretation of elements of that life are surely as important as accurate and meticulous historical research. To quote English biographer Hermione Lee: ‘[w]hether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want from it is a vivid sense of the person’. Like the ABR reviewer, I longed for more breaking away from the chronology, more extended drawing together of patterns and connections, more sense of the peaks and troughs of Franklin’s life that tend to be flattened out in the daily record, more risk-taking from the biographer.

This idea of ‘breaking away from chronology’ is a key one for the biographer. The biographer has to see patterns that aren’t clear in the day to day detail, and know when to tie together events separated by time but linked by theme. The review also raises the issue of spending the right amount of time on the ‘peaks and troughs’, as against ‘ordinary time’, the less remarkable phases of someone’s life.

A lot of this, though, comes down to what readers are looking for in a biography – and for many, many readers, Jill Roe’s account was exactly what they were looking for.