finally, meet Henrietta Lacks

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.

11 Responses

  1. I remember hearing just a bit about this sometime in the last year. After reading your entry here, I went to Bookmooch to put this on my wishlist — turns out I already had it on there!

  2. [...] Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe; The Hobbit by Tolkien; For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. But right now, at this moment, I am [...]

  3. [...] and I wish this aspect would have played into the body of the book. As I’ve said of several nonfiction books I’ve read before, I enjoy the author’s voice, and her/his experience [...]

  4. [...] The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: I think this is an awfully important book. The only argument for is exclusion is its recent publication. I always wonder if a book’s importance will last the test of time. Although in this case I’m rather sure it will, I wouldn’t be against a sort of mandatory waiting period, if you follow. [...]

  5. [...] your choice (if you get selected). I have requested to give away (in this order) copies of either The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Ender’s Game, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I actually submitted a [...]

  6. [...] Book Night, which is April 23, 2012. I am hoping that I will get to give away my first-choice book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I feel that this is such an important, impressive book, in its subject matter (both medical and [...]

  7. [...] able to give away was the amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Here is my review (from my early blogging days, as you may note). WBN gave me 20 copies of their special edition to [...]

  8. [...] a biography of a scientific figure, or other science-based nonfiction. I think of Soundings or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, both lovely narrative works about science and people that treated the people more heavily, and in [...]

  9. [...] working conditions, civil rights, war and ethics… It could be compared to Soundings or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in its intersection of hard science with the creative, feeling portrayal of women’s lives. [...]

  10. […] Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a […]

  11. Hello friends, pleasant article and pleasant arguments commented at this place, I
    am actually enjoying by these.

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