Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a
humorous look at one family's life when a scientific impossibility becomes a reality.

Eleven-year-old Ellie Cruz lives with her mother, a high school drama teacher, in a small, two bedroom house in the Bay Area surrounding San Francisco. One afternoon Ellie's babysitter, Nicole tells her that her mom will be late coming home because she has to pick Ellie's grandfather up from the police station.Ellie can't imagine what her grandfather has gotten into. He's a scientist who's never approved of Ellie's mom's love of theatre, so Ellie knows this will interesting.

When Ellie's mom returns home she is accompanied by a slender, teenage boy with long hair. At first Ellie thinks he might be one of the kids from her mother's theatre crew. As her mother and the boy argue back and forth, Ellie begins to realize that he seems familiar. When she spies the college ring on the boy's finger she realizes the boy is her grandpa.

Her grandfather tells Ellie that he has found a way to reverse aging, through cellular regeneration. He's discovered the fountain of youth. Ellie is filled with disbelief but her mother assures her that the thirteen-year-old boy standing before them is actually her seventy-seven-year-old grandfather, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky.

As Melvin stuffs himself with pizza, he tells Ellie that his vision and hearing has returned and his arthritis is gone. He also says he was picked up by the police for trespassing on private property - the lab where he once worked and whose reputation he helped build.

The next morning Melvin tells Ellie that he needs to get into his lab to recover his jellyfish specimen. He explains to Ellie that he has a species of jellyfish, Turritopsis melvinus in the lab. The T. melvinus is what helped him to "sort out the mechanism for reversing senescence" or the process of aging. Ellie is skeptical but Melvin explains to her that there are plenty of examples in nature of organisms with regenerative abilities. A few months ago, Melvin states that he was contacted by an Australian diver who had found an odd specimen of T. nutricula. When Melvin received the specimen he was certain it was a new species as it was huge and had other differences. So he named it Turritopsis melvinus. He then created a compound which he tested on adult mice who reverted to adolescence. He decided to test it on himself and he too reverted to adolescence. But the jellyfish is still in the lab and Melvin wants it to continue his research.

First though Melvin is sent to school with Ellie. Besides dressing very eccentrically, Melvin loves the large school lunches. As he struggles to fit in at school, Melvin schemes to retrieve his jellyfish from his old lab, in the hopes that he can publish his work and win a coveted Nobel Prize. But as Ellie learns more about the world of science and what it means to be a scientist she begins to wonder at the price some pay for the knowledge they gain and whether every discovery is necessarily good. It is Ellie who forces Melvin to consider the true cost of his discovery.


Jennifer Holm has written an engaging, humorous story for younger readers that explores both the importance of science in our lives but also the ethical dilemmas scientists should consider but sometimes do not,  in the face of new discoveries. Holm's writing draws from her personal experience growing up with a father who was a pediatrician and who regularly kept "petri dishes with blood agar in our refrigerator to grow bacteria cultures."

In The Fourteenth Goldfish, Ellie's grandfather Melvin Sagarsky is determined to sneak into his old lab and obtain his jellyfish, T. melvinus, from which he created a compound that reversed aging and turned him from an old man into an adolescent. Melvin shows up at Ellie's house being the snarky, quirky grandfather she's always known except that he's now in the body of a thirteen year old boy. He's determined to recover T. melvinus, continue his research and win the coveted Nobel Prize.

As Ellie spends time with her grandfather, he explains the positive character traits of scientists and why science is so important - that it has brought about good change in the world.  Her grandfather mentions many famous scientists such as Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer and Galileo and presents to his granddaughter what he believes are characteristics that make scientists superior to other people in society. He tells her that scientists are persistent. "Average people just give up at the obstacles we face every day. Scientists fail again and again and again. Sometimes for our whole lives. But we don't give up, because we want solve the puzzle." According to Melvin, scientists "keep trying because they believe in the possible...That it's possible to cure polio. That it's possible to sequence the human genome. That it's possible to find a way to reverse aging. That science can change the world."

Ellie researches the scientists her grandfather has mentioned so she can write about one of them for a school project. While researching Oppenheimer, Ellie discovers that the scientists working on the first atomic bomb had mixed feelings about their success. Oppenheimer stated  "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent." Ellie understands a little how they felt because her feelings were the same when her "grandfather walked through the front door looking like a teenager." 

Even though they fail at their first attempt to gain access to the lab, Ellie's grandfather remains undeterred, telling Ellie that "Scientists fail all the time...you have to keep at it. Just like Marie Curie" who eventually won a Nobel prize. Once they do rescue the jellyfish specimen from his old lab, her grandfather begins making plans to set up a lab and continue his work. However, Ellie begins to have reservations about his research. Her research into some of the scientists her grandfather mentioned shows that science can also have a dark side too. "Marie Curie was exposed to a lot of radiation during her experiments. Eventually it poisoned her. Her discovery killed her." When her best friend Brianna tells Ellie that she thinks Melvin is cute, Ellie is stunned that her friend likes her seventy-seven year-old grandfather. 

Melvin teaches Ellie to observe the world around her, to ask questions and to think more deeply about things. This has an unexpected result because Ellie begins to seriously consider the consequences of her grandfather's discovery with the critical observation of a scientist.  "I look around my room with new eyes, and what I observe makes me question everything. The handprints on the wall: as people grow older, will hands get smaller instead of bigger because of T. melvinus?...will people have fewer candles on their cake every year because they're getting younger?"  Ellie already knows the other side of the Marie Curie story, but what about Robert Oppenheimer?  Her internet searches reveal that almost two hundred thousand people died because of the atomic bomb. Was the development of the bomb good?

This leads her to question her grandfather about what his discovery will mean for the world: will they have changed it for the better? When Ellie's grandfather clings to the idea that science is always for the good, she counters, "I believe in science! But what if it isn't a good idea? What if we're not Salk? What if we're Oppenheimer? What if T. melvinus is like the bomb?"

Ellie asks her grandfather, "Is growing up, growing old - life - is it all so terrible?" Ellie goes full circle remembering what her grandfather said to her about scientists believing in "the possible".  She tells her grandfather that she wants that possibility of living her life from the age of twelve until she's old. Ellie's idea is further affirmed when she attends her mother's high school production of Our Town, a Thornton Wilder play about life in small town America. The play's central theme is that the living do not appreciate life while they are living it and take the time to savour it fully. This is expressed by the character of Emily who grows up, marries but dies unexpectedly after having her second child. She returns to the living for one day, her twelfth birthday.
"She has a line about whether anyone understands life when they're living it. I get what she's trying to say: life is precious and we don't realize that at the time. But maybe life's also precious because it doesn't last forever. Like an amusement park ride. The roller coaster is exciting the first time. But would it be as fun if you did it again and again and again?" Ultimately, Melvin Herbert Sagarsky gets it and this understanding is shown in what he tells Ellie and what the choices he makes.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a thoughtful novel in which author Jennifer Holm asks her young readers to consider the consequences of scientific discoveries and to ask hard questions. Questions like,  "Should we do something just because we can?" and "How will the discovery of...change the world?"  In this novel it is the discovery of reversing aging but it could be anything - the genetic modification of foods or animals.

One of the strengths of The Fourteenth Goldfish is the strong, well developed characters Holm creates. She has captured the snarky, confident, proud nature of an accomplished, elderly scientist in the character of Melvin Sagarsky. He's a brilliant mix of elderly wit and teenage moodiness. Ellie Cruz is a thoughtful, intelligent young girl whose natural curiosity is sparked by her grandfather. Even the secondary characters are interesting; Raj who shows an interest in Melvin's research and Ben, Ellie's mother's boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her.

The Fourteenth Goldfish is a great novel for middle grade readers and is highly recommended. The title refers to the goldfish Ellie was given by her preschool teacher, Starlily to teach her about the cycle of life. After all her classmates goldfish had died, Ellie's fish seemed to live on and on until it died in fifth grade. But it turns out that Ellie's first goldfish actually died years ago and her mother had been replacing each goldfish with another until that fateful thirteenth in grade five. Melvin is the fourteenth goldfish - the one who lives on and on.

It should be noted that Madame Curie won TWO Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 and the other in Chemistry in 1911. To this day she remains the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in TWO different sciences. Also poliomyelitis cannot be cured but it can be prevented through vaccination.

Book Details:

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
New York: Random House     2014
195 pp.

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