Monday, October 12, 2015

Sometimes Things Just Happen: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin


Summarize your observations. Do your outcomes support your hypothesis? Remember, science never "proves" anything; it merely contributes to the growing body of evidence. If your research does not support your hypothesis, be honest about that. Remember that in science we learn as much from failures as we do from successes.                                                                                                                         --Mrs. Turton

Suzy and Franny had been best friends since they were five, at their first swimming lesson, when Franny swam underwater across the pool to where the instructor was urging the little girls to blow bubbles in the water. Suzy followed her and they became friends.

Until middle school happens. Suddenly Franny is drawn to the pretty popular girls who ignore Suzy. Suzy feels invisible, her words unheard amid the chatter of clothes and trips to the mall, and her friend drifts inexorably away. Suzy can't understand what is happening, and at last she plays a cruel prank on her friend, one that she hopes will make Franny understand how she feels, but Franny never links Suzy to the deed, and by the end of school, Suzy feels herself becoming a silent loner adrift in a strange world.

And then, at the end of summer, just before school starts, Suzy's mother tells her that Franny is dead, drowned swimming in the ocean with her family. And Suzy cannot accept that things like that just happen.

Zu, my mom had said, sometimes things just happen. It was a terrible answer, the very worst.

Mrs. Turton says when something happens that no one can explain, it means you have bumped up against the edge of human knowledge. And that is when you need science.

As the new school year begins, Suzy falls into a deliberate not-talking silence. Then on a field trip to an aquarium, she slips away from her giggling classmates, flicking water from the shark touch tank at each other, and finds the Jellies exhibit where she is drawn to a sign that reads An Invisible Enigma. The placard describes the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, and its words strike Suzy with what must be the explanation for Franny's unexplained death.

There are a number of documented deaths from Irukandji syndrome. Stings may have been the true cause of deaths mistakenly attributed to other causes. Many researchers believe the Irukandji has migrated far beyond its native Australia as the oceans warm.

Obsessed with proving her hypothesis, Suzy uses a research project for Mrs. Turton's science class as a cover to gather information, googling for experts on the Irukandji, settling upon one kind-looking professor in Australia, Dr. Jamie Seymour, who himself almost died from a jellyfish sting. She even places a call to his office, but when he comes to the phone, Zu is unable to speak to him.

Zu's compulsion grows, believing that if she can speak to Jamie Seymour face-to-face, he will understand and help her prove the cause of her friend's death. As the year goes on, she starts to prepare.  She opens her piggy bank, saves her allowance, copies her father's credit card, and even takes money from her mother and brother. She finds limo services in Australia to take her to Jamie's campus and makes reservations at a hotel nearby. She secretly locates her passport, packs her bag, and books a flight online with no questions asked.

Here's the most important thing I've learned from not-talking. It is much, much easier to keep a secret when you don't use any words at all.

But despite her methodical preparation, as Zu picks up her boarding pass at the airline desk she learns something she didn't foresee.

The ticket agent asks for her visa. She doesn't have one.

"Sweetie, where are your parents?"

"Passengers ages twelve and over may travel with no adult supervision as long as they have a valid boarding pass," I quoted.

"No," she said. "Not international travel,"

I had failed.

As people grow, unpredicted things happen. In Ali Benjamin's The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), Suzy discovers that a hypothesis that works in one environment may not work in another. Her belief that Franny would always be there as a friend has failed. But as Mrs. Turton's scientific method says, we learn as much from failures as we do from successes, and that is the premise of Benjamin's intense coming of age novel,  that we swim in uncharted waters in which there may be no final conclusion, only better hypotheses as we go. With her central symbol of the jellyfish, a nearly invisible, shape-changing chimera, yet real, pulsating like a beating heart but potentially deadly to other hearts, the author catches the vision of the only partly knowable world into which a child grows up.. Suzy's internal world and the external world of family and school flow separate but parallel paths part of the way, as she bravely tries to find how to find the connection to make it all come together again.

"We never step into the same river twice," goes the familiar quote, and that river of time, life and death, and even of science is and is not the same every time we step into it. Ali Stevenson's beautifully crafted coming-of-age novel, moving back and forth through Suzy's year, following the steps of the scientific method offered by her teacher, shows her character moving on, ready to step back into that river. Widely praised by critics and currently long-listed for the National Book Award, this is a novel readers will not forget.

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