Review: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

LabGirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
(Memoir; Knopf, 2016)

5/5 stars.

Jahren harmonizes the story of her life as a geobotanist with the story of trees. Undaunted by the solitary nature of lab work, she discovers that a host of other challenges stand in her way, from a nationwide funding drought to deeply entrenched sexism to her own, more personal battles. Despite it all, she and her unlikely partner-in-science, Bill tackle success, failure, birth, death, resentment, forgiveness, family, and self.

Writer-Brain: 5/5 stars. I picked this book up because of the uncanny similarities between Jahren’s story and the main character in my WIP. It used to be tough distancing myself from “source material,” if you want to call it that, but lately I’ve had a better time of it, so I wasn’t worried about accidentally conflating my 1869 botanist with a real-life scientist from today. As I’d hoped, Lab Girl gave me a chance to be in the head of scientist for a while–and one who shares a few characteristics with my main character at that. I have a few new ideas, a few points of confirmation: really from the writer side of things, this inspired me as I hoped it would.

Editor-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s structure is not to be copied likely. Telling two stories at once–one foreign to the reader and one more familiar–was certainly a risk and I’m willing to guess not a small undertaking for Jahren or her editor(s). The result was cohesive and compelling, and I think most readers will find the back-and-forth smooth and interesting. It adds some pauses for the narrative, reasserts Jahren’s expertise, and emphasizes the narrative threads so essential in carrying us through a career’s worth of stories. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution; not every story would flourish with this kind of structure, even when shepherded with great care.

Also of note, there are a few places where Jahren uses tense changes to jump forward in time. I felt a touch jolted, but likely less than through other means of time change. It just occurred to me that it always felt a bit like a time-lapse video, which somehow I now appreciate better than before.


Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s writing is phenomenal and engaging and engrossing. I would have said this even before I spent a few chapters in part 3 trying not to cry. Jahren shares her pregnancy experience and the details are so frustrating and so real and so unsurprising (making it all the more enraging) that I just couldn’t remain unmoved and impartial. Some aspects of her experience certainly resonated with me on a personal level and I am sure will speak to anyone who has experienced the confluence of having a job and being pregnant.

Beyond this, though, Jahren’s story is universal in so many ways. Read this if you want to learn about the experience of a female scientist. Read this if you have felt alone against the world–and if you’ve had the joy of finding a kindred spirit against the odds. Read this if you are looking for a different kind of story arc, one that is not Jungian and yet echoes deeply across time, space, and species.

Et cetera: I checked my copy of Lab Girl out of the Ames Free LIbrary in Easton, MA, and loved it too much to return it before I’d finished it, despite it being a week late. If the next person in line for the book is reading this: #sorrynotsorry. It’s worth it and you’ll know it.

What I Can’t Do, What I Can Do

It’s official: I won’t be physically hiking for Wilderness Heals this year.

This is a really, really hard thing for me to handle. If you’ve talked to me at all in the past six years, you know how important the hike and the hikers and the Elizabeth Stone House have been to me. In 2010, I signed up having never put on a pair of hiking boots. Since then, I’ve summited half of the Four Thousand Footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, hiked hundreds of miles, team led, and told pretty much every woman I know about the hike. Heck, the hike even inspired the novel I’m writing.

Wilderness Heals is no small commitment, but I’ve always made space for it. I went on the hike a week before my wedding. I went on the hike when I could barely afford to take the time off from work. I went on the hike even when I knew I likely wouldn’t be able to raise the $1,500 minimum and would have to cover the balance myself. The only thing that kept me from hiking last year was the fact that I was 9 months pregnant. ELF made her entrance one week after the hike.

What keeps me coming back? Every bit of the hike. The mountains. The women who have stood by me through so many important life changes. And then there’s the Elizabeth Stone House. For 42 years, they’ve been serving the community and working to stop the cycles of homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and trauma. They provide emergency and transitional housing. They provide childcare and peace of mind. They counsel and empower and educate and support. They build and enrich the community. How could you not show up for an organization like that?

I promised myself that I’d hike this year. I was prepared to pump-and-dump breastmilk on the trail. I was prepared to really tighten the belt to make sure I could cover the fundraising minimum since I’m not salaried anymore. I was gearing myself up to leave ELF and Mike for three days to do something bigger than myself.

But I can’t.

The only pack I’ll be carrying this summer. But what a bundle!

When you have a breastfed baby that doesn’t take a bottle, you can’t leave. You can’t spend more than  a few hours away because they need to eat and you are their only source of food. We got here the way we got here, and we’ve exhausted the options we’ve exhausted; if you’re interested in minutiae, PM me. What it boils down to is this: I can’t go on a three-day hike, no matter how wonderful the cause.

It feels like a failure, which is really tough considering all of the negotiating (read: feels like failing) I’ve been doing in every other part of my life lately.

A few years back one of the Elizabeth Stone House’s clients stood in front of the hikers as we got ready to leave and reminded us that there are always some people who need help and some people who can help. And though I won’t be on the trails this year, I’m still someone who can help.

For the second year in a row, I’m virtual hiking to support the Elizabeth Stone House and the 2016 Wilderness Heals hikers. I’m sure that, in time, I’ll come up with some awesome statistics of how far ELF and I have walked together, of how much we’ve accomplished together, but for now, it’s enough to tell you this. And to ask you to join us.

If you’re a woman in the Boston area, consider hiking. I cannot tell you enough how much you’ll love it.

And if you’re not able to hike, lend your support some other way. Contribute towards my goal. Share this post and information about the Elizabeth Stone House with your own communities. Start tough conversations about domestic violence and homelessness and substance abuse with the people around you, and don’t let silence enable your communities to assume these are inevitable parts of people’s lives. Find a way to be a person that can help by doing what you can do.

You’ll be glad you did.