April 20, 2018

Librarians: The Secret to Narrative History

Ten years ago, I had what seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea: for my MFA thesis (which I had two years to finish), I’d write a book about the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture, one of the most important tools in medicine, taken from a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge. I didn’t want to write a scientific treatise or a biography or a work of straight journalism. I wanted to bring Henrietta and her story to life through a book that read like fiction—with scenes, characters, and dialog—but that was entirely true. But there was one problem. Henrietta died in 1951, and the facts I needed were ones few people think to document: how she played as a child, how she moved. This is the biggest hurdle facing writers of historic narrative nonfiction: the quality of the stories we can tell depends entirely on the details other people think to save years before we come along.

I fantasized about finding a trunk full of photos and letters, but Henrietta’s family couldn’t afford cameras, and most worked tobacco fields instead of going to school, so they didn’t read or write much. When I arrived in Henrietta’s tiny hometown of Clover, VA, its main street was lined with fallen-down buildings, and its history seemed to have vanished. I dug through basements and county records offices, and a horrible feeling came over me: maybe no one saved any of Henrietta’s stories. Maybe I’d never be able to write this book. Then I found Frances Woltz, a silver-haired retired high school librarian.

When I knocked on Frances’s door and said I was looking for Clover’s history, Frances smiled as if she’d been waiting for me for decades. “Come in,” she said, “I have something for you.” In her powder-blue parlor, she handed me a stack of manila folders, pointing to census figures and graphs of the town’s economic decline. Tucked between those pages was a photo of Clover’s wide, dusty Main Street full of Model A’s and wagons pulled by mules and horses. I pointed at it, saying, “What’s this?”

“Oh, that’s just fun stuff,” she said.

But the fun stuff was exactly what I wanted: men playing checkers on an old barrel in front of the hardware store; women gossiping at the local store, their babies sleeping on a counter, heads resting on a long bolt of fabric. Frances had spent more than 50 years collecting a gold mine of narrative details; she’d just never thought of them that way. She’d saved newspaper articles, church newsletters, and handwritten oral history she’d gathered from locals long since passed. They were filled with details that brought Clover to life: Old Man Snow driving his tractor to the store like it was a car, his hounds Cadillac and Dan baying beside him; a bear escaping from a traveling circus and running up an oak tree on Main Street when Henrietta was a child. And notes about a fire that began the demise of the town: “Mrs. Baber felt walls grow hot. Out on porch, prayed home be spared just as paint began to bubble and sap run from wood, wind changed and swept fire north, house spared. After fire, 37 or more houses destroyed, couldn’t buy a pound of sugar in Clover.”

Frances’s folders gave me hope that I could someday tell the story of Henrietta Lacks. And in the ten years it took me to finish my book, many librarians and archivists helped dig up wonderful facts. But they were often surprised by the details I wanted: not the specific title of the director of an institute that funded a certain research center but the kind of shoes he wore and the color of his laboratory walls. Each time a librarian asked why I wanted those quirky details, I’d say, “They’re the ones that make narrative nonfiction possible.” Then I’d ask them to start saving similar details for some future narrative nonfiction writer who hasn’t been born yet, just as Frances did for me.

[See the starred review of Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, p. 130.]