Melissa Markham, November 25, 2012 (view all comments by Melissa Markham)
Granted, the premise for the book didn't immediately grab me. Cell culture? Yawn. Fortunately, my loyalty to my book club compelled me to read it. And I could hardly put it down! It's a social history reminding us of the legacy of slavery that still haunts us. It's a scientific history that takes us into the labs and lives of scientists, reminding us not to take knowledge for granted. And, surprisingly, it's a history of writing the book itself, as the author includes anecdotes of her struggle for information, interviews, and cooperation from those who knew Henrietta Lacks. Finally, it's the story of a wonderful woman that I wish I had known, and how her cancerous cells changed the world of science while her quiet death went barely noticed by the outside world.
Sigh. Why aren't there more books like this?
peter in port, April 30, 2012 (view all comments by peter in port)
I participated as a book giver in the recent World Book Night, and chose Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as my book because it was non-fiction, which I enjoy. I thought I should read it before handing out free copies in public. Skloot's book is hard to categorize. It is a little bit of history, popularized science, autobiography, and sociology.
Henrietta Lacks was part of an African-American family of subsistence tobacco farmers living in rural Clover, Virginia. Descended from slaves, her family life of extreme poverty included fighting off incestuous cousins, sleeping on dirt floors and dangerous working conditions. Her cousin, who eventually married her, was not faithful, and infected her with more than one venereal disease. She was the mother of five children, one of whom is likely mentally retarded, although the medical diagnoses of those days used the indescribably cruel category of idiocy. As a result of being infected by her unfaithful husband with HPV, Henrietta contracts cervical cancer. She is treated in the "colored" section of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. Scientists at Hopkins, without explaining what they were doing, keep a tissue sample of her cancerous cervix, which turn out to be the source of the first human cells capable of reproducing in a laboratory. The cells, named HeLa, after its donor, are involved in the testing of the polio vaccine and hundreds of other scientific projects. Yet the donor of the cells dies shortly after they are harvested and is buried anonymously in her family's poverty stricken shack compound. Skloots researches the life of Henrietta Lacks, locates and meets with her surviving children, and describes their lives, which are a cross section of modern African-American life. One daughter, Deborah, works two jobs, while taking care of her grandchildren and living from paycheck to paycheck. A son, as a result of the untimely death of Henrietta, becomes an alcoholic murderer, eventually landing in jail and converting to Islam. The retarded, deaf daughter is cruelly institutionalized in a segregated mental institution, never to be seen by the family, which hardly knows she exists.
I found the organization of the book difficult, since Skloots uses a multiple flashback technique, which sometimes results in repetition. The sympathetic way in which she portrays the survivors of Henrietta Lacks was very touching and informative. I found the exposition of ethical issues a little murky, but perhaps that is the point. The cells were taken from a patient without her permission, but given the low educational levels prevalent at that point in history, it is difficult to say if informed consent could have been given.
Rebecca Skloots injects herself into the story in a way which is common among science popularizing authors today, but she most likely would not have been able to gain the insights into the history of the Lacks family. One thing I found haunting is the question whether the typical African-American family can ever survive generations of illegitimacy and ignorance. Skloots' tone is hopeful and positive, but reading between the lines, I wondered if that is justified.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a bestseller, and has won its author a lot of critical acclaim. I found it a little bit flawed, and it seemed to raise a lot more questions than it could possibly answer, so I gave it a 4 out of 5, but I would nonetheless recommend it, and I am glad that I helped distribute copies of it on World Book night.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and eBooks — here at Powells.com.