What an amazing story. First, let me admit that I was perhaps a little wary of beginning this one because I feared it might be “heavy” (science-y, tech-y). But after a pleasant day pre-riding tomorrow’s race course with friends in perfect weather, I got brave and settled into it while the Husband worked on a bike in the garage.
I began with “A Few Words About This Book” and was enthralled in just a few sentences. Nothing about this story is dry or overly science-y. In the prologue I learned of the personal connection between author Rebecca Skloot and the story of Henrietta Lacks. This is too human to be heavy.
I’ll back up. In case you don’t know, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a work of nonfiction, addressing the case of a Southern black woman whose cells were harvested without her knowledge shortly before a mysteriously aggressive cancer took her life just past the age of 30, leaving 5 small children to be raised by an enormous family of Lackses and friends. This family didn’t find out about the use of her cells for more than 20 years, during which time they were reproduced in numbers greater than can be contemplated. Henrietta’s cells have played an important and often the decisive role in innumerable medical and scientific advances: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, genetic research, in vitro fertilization and the effects of the atom bomb. All of this without any attempt to inform her family, get consent, or discover their feelings; and without any compensation. While industries are birthed and men become rich, the Lackses continue in the same culture that Henrietta’s parents knew, living in their forefather’s slave quarters and farming tobacco. Today’s Lackses are ill-equipped to even understand the story of Henrietta’s cells, and no one has bothered to try to explain it to them.
As soon as I started reading I was engrossed. Again, the author, Skloot, has a personal relationship to the story, and necessarily forms personal relationships with the modern-day players in the course of her research. I learn a surprising amount of science without feeling intellectually exercised, and it almost reads like a work of suspense; the pages keep turning; I’m anxious to hear the next bit of dialog. Human interactions with Henrietta’s relatives are interspersed with the science (which in itself is interspersed with the human stories of those players), and the thing just rolls along building momentum.
I had to tear myself away to write this entry for you. I find this to be an outrageous (as in, outrage-inducing) and educational story, and I recommend it. Skloot’s skills as a writer are commendable. I hope you’ll join me as I open a cold Avery IPA (just one, I’m racing tomorrow) and get back in it.