Monday, October 12, 2009

Sports, Adventure & Mystery: Double Helix

Bibliographic Data
Werlin, Nancy. Double Helix. New York: Dial Books, 2004. ISBN 1423100034.

Plot Summary
Eighteen year old Eli takes a year off from college to work in a bioengineering lab. While there, he finds that his family has been involved with the head of the lab, Dr. Wyatt, before. Now his mother is dying of Huntington's Disease, a genetic disorder. Does Dr. Wyatt's lab hold the secrets to Eli'a past, his future, or both?

Critical Analysis
Eli Samuels has just graduated from high school. His mother, Ava, is dying of a genetic disorder known as Huntington’s Disease. When offered the chance to work at a genetic research facility, a job that most graduate students would jump through flaming hoops for, Eli takes the position despite his father’s objections. Eli wants to help out with the finances since his mother’s illness has inflicted a major blow on the family’s finances. He is stunned when his father is adamant about him not working at Wyatt Transgenics Institute. Even more frustrating, Eli’s father refuses to explain his objections to working with Dr. Wyatt. All he’ll tell Eli is that his objections are not because of some past involvement between Eli’s mother and Dr. Wyatt. But that’s not enough for Eli.

           Later on, I would remember that moment as the
            turning point. Odd, because I’d have thought other
            moments would feel more decisive. But that was the
            one that stood out in my memory, the moment in
            which what I said, what I decided was the single vital
            factor. The moment in which I stood with words—
            important, life-changing words—on my lips just
            waiting to come out.

            I’ll quit the job. I’ll do what you ask, without any more
            questions. And you owe me.

            But I didn’t say them. Instead, I said, “I’m sorry, Dad. I
            want to do this. If it had been about Mom—well, I
            would have quit. But since you say it isn’t…”

            I waited. I gave him a chance to tell me what it was

            He didn’t. After a moment, he simply picked up the
            William Blake, opened it and began to read.

            I left his room, closing the door behind me. I went to
            mine. I sat there in the dark, on the edge of my bed.

            I was sorry to hurt my father. But I wanted to know Dr.
            Wyatt. There was at that time no force on earth that
            could have kept me from getting to know Dr. Wyatt
            and the world that he was promising to me.

            And so, the next Monday, I went to my new job at
            Wyatt Transgenics.” (60-61)

Eli is so tired of being treated like a child. If his father would only treat him like an adult, give him rational, adult reasons to not work for Wyatt instead of his silent agreement “to just let me do what I had decided to do” (70). Eli feels his father doesn’t understand him.

Eli wants to feel like he contributes to the family’s well-being. He has learned about all the bills that have been accumulated from his mother’s illness and unwillingly resents both his mother for causing them, and his father for not letting him know. Their financial affairs are one reason why Eli wants to put college off for a year. After his mother’s death, Eli wants his father to get on with his life. But his father is stuck in mourning for his mother.

           “He had thrown so much of his life away. Was he
           planning to salvage what was left? To indulge, finally
           in wine, women, and song? He deserved all of that.
           He’d been good to her. To me. He could have a full
           life now, a new life. He ought to want it.

           But as far as I could tell, he was still stuck dwelling
           on the past.

           She was an extraordinary person.

           So what? Who cared? She’d caused devastation
           and destruction. She’d wrecked lives, mostly his...
           She hadn’t meant to do that, of course. But she had
           all the same.

           Well. One thing I knew, I could make sure that my
           father didn’t have any additional burdens, any
           additional debt, any additional heartache, any
           additional life wreckage. Enough was enough.
           I was eighteen, and employed. In every way, I could
           take care of myself now. I could move on, and in
           doing so, force him to do it, too.” (141-142)

While working at Wyatt Transgenics, Eli inadvertently discovers that he is actually a genetic experiment conducted by Dr. Wyatt at his mother’s request to ensure that she would have a child without Huntington’s Disease, which kills its victims early in life after they go insane first.

While trying to learn more, Eli also learns that the cost for providing his parents with a healthy child (himself) was having to give Dr. Wyatt all of his mother’s other ova. Eli’s father didn’t find out about that horrible price until Ava was pregnant with Eli. Eli finally learns the truth.

            “”I didn’t know at first.” There was a pleading note in
           my father’s voice. “I swear to you, Eli, I didn’t know
           about that part of the bargain until after Ava was
           pregnant with you and Wyatt had assured us that you
           did not have HD. Ava knew I’d have a problem with
           their agreement. She told me it was her business,
           hers and Wyatt’s. Her body, her choice. Not mine. I
           was only involved in your conception.”

            “But I dream about them,” my father said starkly. “I
           feel that they…wherever, they are, maybe still in
           embryo, frozen—that they are my children somehow.
           Not genetically, I know that. But my responsibility.
           And I’ve failed them, because…because he’s not a
           man you would trust with a child. I knew that the
           minute I met him. Brilliant, yes. But that’s not
           important. At least, I don’t think it is.”

           He swallowed. “Eli, we let him have the eggs. We
           gave him dozens of potential children to play with, in
           exchange for you.”” (205)

Wow. Talk about a climactic moment! Finally, Eli understands his father’s feelings - Eli has other siblings all over the country that have also been genetic experiments of Dr. Wyatt’s, and his father has had to live with this knowledge all these years. Dr. Wyatt views these children as scientific experiments, and has been involved in the other children’s lives since they were born. But Eli, Eli was the one who Dr. Wyatt “considered… irretrievable data.” (220). That’s why Dr. Wyatt offered him a job too tempting to turn down. And that’s why Dr Wyatt is suddenly so much a part of Eli’s life. And that’s why Eli’s father can’t bring himself to even be in the same room with Dr. Wyatt.

While spending time with Dr. Wyatt, he also meets a 19 year old girl, Kayla, who is related to him genetically. In Dr. Wyatt’s words, they “have some DNA in common” (179). ” While trying to find out more about Kayla’s conception, Eli also learns that Kayla DOES have Huntington’s disease. She was Dr. Wyatt’s first, unsuccessful attempt at producing an embryo without the chromosomal marker. Dr. Wyatt expected the embryo to not be viable, but instead, Kayla has grown up into a beautiful, intelligent young woman.

When Kayla learns that she has Huntington’s Disease and Dr. Wyatt could have possibly prevented it, she is so furious that when Dr. Wyatt shows up in the room where Eli and Kayla are looking at Dr. Wyatt’s notes, Kayla tries to kill Dr. Wyatt. As Eli grabs Kayla, Dr. Wyatt escapes. Kayla and Eli turn over their discoveries to the police, but keep a backup CD of the notes for themselves, to try to figure out where they fit into Dr. Wyatt’s scheme.

Eli not only holds himself emotionally back from his father, but from his girlfriend, Viv, also. Eli tells himself that it’s for her own good that she doesn’t’ know about his mother, and that she doesn’t know that there is no future in a relationship with him. During Eli’s voyage of self-discovery though, he realizes that he hasn’t held back from Viv to protect her, but to protect himself from getting hurt by yet one more person who loves him. Ironically, after Eli finally trusts Viv enough to tell her about himself, it’s Viv who brings father and son together for the talk they should have had long, long ago.

Eli has made quite an emotional journey during his employment at Wyatt Transgenics. He began as an 18 year old kid who thought he was mature enough to handle the world alone, by himself. By the end of the story, he has matured enough to realize that being adult doesn’t mean you have to rely only on yourself and never on others. Eli has Viv, he has Kayla, and most of all, he has his father.

           "But we do have the data. We have each other. We
           have two healthy little sisters, in Chicago and in
           Edgecomb, Maine. And in Clearwater, Florida, and in
           Los Angeles, we have one little brother, and one infant
           sister, who have all sorts of problems….

            “And it’s not like there isn’t medical hope,” Viv says.
            “It’s not like scientific advancements are all suspect or
           evil. Far from it.”

           …We have the data, then and I will learn how to read
           it and I will learn what it means. Chromosome by
           chromosome, gene by gene, I will learn who and what
           we are. But no matter what I learn, no matter what the
           gene map says, I don’t believe it predetermines who
           we—who anyone—can be. l don’t believe it.

           I have only to look at my father, after all. We don’t
           know the exact nature of our genetic relationship, my
           father and I—or even if there is one. We don’t know
           the extent of Wyatt’s tinkering with me. But that most
           profoundly does not matter. Jonathan Samuels is my
           father. I am his son.

           We chose.

           I fight my way through the snow and the wind and
           then I am home.” (247-248)

The setting is Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Cambridge. Since Harvard University and MIT are both located in Cambridge, this setting contributes a background atmosphere of intellectual intensity to the story. Eli also takes long walks along the Charles River when he needs to be alone, but otherwise, this setting is fairly insignificant. The point of view is first person, narrated by Eli Samuels, the protagonist.

The themes of this story are man vs. nature, man vs. man, but primarily man vs. self. Eli must come to grips with the facts of his existence and decide for himself how this will affect his future. By the end of the story, Eli has decided that he still wants to work in the biogenetics field, and in the final scene, we find Eli meeting with an MIT bioethics professor to request admission to her usually senior and graduate level bioethics seminar. The words he says to her contrast directly with the conversation he had with Dr. Wyatt the night of Eli’s graduation from high school.

           On the night of Eli’s graduation:
            “I looked him right in the eye. “I think that, as a
           species, we visit this topic in fiction over and over not
           because—or not only because—we’re obsessed with
           the human soul. I think that just gives us a framework
           for discussion. The real reason is because, as a
           society, we’re on the verge of making the creation of
           life, by humans, reality. We’re trying to find ways to
           talk about it with people who aren’t necessarily able to
           understand the science—because we all have to
           participate. As a species, I mean. We all have to
           decide what’s best to do.” I wanted to add, what
           choices to make
, but then I remembered that Dr.
           Wyatt had just said that he didn’t really believe in free
           choice. Just in neurons.” (53-54)

           At the end of the story:
            ““I don’t trust us,” I say. My voice cracks. “I don’t trust
           us to be able to decide. Even with the best of
           intentions—we might think we’re eradicating suffering,
           but are we? We’re only human—we don’t know what’ll
           happen even tomorrow. How can we make decisions
           that will affect all our descendants forever? How can
           we possibly know what’s best?”” (245)

The story definitely raises some intriguing ethical points. Most older teenagers will enjoy this book and its call to readers to decide for themselves where they stand on the issue of genetic manipulation. Reading about how it could affect the life of other teens just like themselves makes these issues all the more real.

Best Books for Young Adults, 2005; American Library Association YALSA; United States.
Booklist Book Review Stars, Feb. 1, 2004; United States.
Capitol Choices, 2005; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States.
Children's Literature Choice List, 2005; Children's Literature; United States.
Core Collection: Character Education In YA Fiction, 2006; American Library Association-Booklist; United States.
Editors' Choice, 2004; American Library Association Booklist; United States.
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005; H.W. Wilson; United States.
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, March 2004; Cahners; United States.
School Library Journal: Best Books, 2004; Cahners; United States.
Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007; The H. W. Wilson Co.;
United States.
Senior High School Library Catalog, Sixteenth Edition, 2004 Supplement, 2004; H.W. Wilson; United States.
Top 10 Youth Mysteries, 2004; American Library Association-Booklist; United States.

Review Excerpts
Stephanie Zvirin (Booklist, Feb. 1, 2004 (Vol. 100, No. 11))
Werlin has proved herself to be one of the best youth thriller writers working today. … She is a master at building suspense and creating the sort of clever manipulations that keep readers eagerly turning the pages…. A solidly crafted, thoughtful novel featuring a clever, obsessed kid who finds truths, small and large, about life, family, and, of course, himself.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2004 (Vol. 72, No. 2))
Tragedy and family politics combine for a suspenseful exploration of love and bioethics…. Thought-provoking, powerful, and rich in character.

Sarah Briggs (The ALAN Review, Winter 2005 (Vol. 32, No. 2))
This gripping novel explores some serious themes such as morality and the ethics of genetic engineering. It is also a story of the ties of love and loyalty that bond a father and son.

Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 2004 (Vol. 57, No. 6))
Werlin carefully crafts this emotion-packed and thoughtful story…. The taut pacing gives this thrilleresque appeal, the emotional intensity and contemporary plausibility will suck in even readers usually skittish about speculative fiction, and the challenging exploration of genetic ethics will definitely prompt some thoughtful discussion.

Book Hook
1. Pair this book with Frankenstein by Steve Parker (Copper Beech Books, 1995).
2. More advanced readers will also enjoy reading the original Frankenstein, or, The
    Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, available in many versions.

Online Connections
1. For information on the Human Genome Project, click here.
2. In 2005, a group of middle-schoolers and research scientists from Harvard and MIT     met to discuss the ethics of topics such as stem cell research, bioenginering,
    etc. The article summarizing this discussion can be found here.

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