Published by Knopf/DoubleDay on January 1, 2013
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Have you ever read a book with protagonist that you both hate and want to like at the same time? This is one of those books. The People in the Trees, which is loosely based on a true story, is about a Nobel prize winning scientist who discovers the key to immortality and, in the process, changes the lives of the inhabitants of a small island. In the decades following his breakthrough discovery, he adopts 40+ children from the small island from which the key to immorality rests, and in the end his goodwill proves to be his undoing.
Reading about scientists is a tricky thing. On the one hand, I hated the main character, Norton, for his treatment of lab animals and the people he discovered on the small island. He had no qualms with tying humans to trees or killing lab animals. My distaste for him was complicated by the fact that he’s based on a real person, which made me think about all of the things the real guy, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, did (and I didn’t have any answers to these questions while reading the book).'People In the Trees' is steeped in reality and reality isn't always pretty. #books Click To Tweet
On the other hand, I don’t think Norton is a malicious man, but rather an emotionally distant, incredibly rational (think Temperance Brennan from Bones), and absolutely brilliant man. It was this duality that had me reminding myself that the book took place in the 1950’s, which was before they had rules in place for how to treat human subjects, and that things were different then. It doesn’t make his actions right, but shine a light on the circumstances of the time.
As for whether or not I would recommend this book, I say yes (mostly). If you’re a science buff or interested in undiscovered civilizations, then I say go for it. It is a great lesson in cultural relativism and the longterm effects of upsetting a natural environment. But if you’re looking for a heartwarming story, then be aware that this isn’t one of those books. It’s steeped in reality and reality isn’t always pretty.