Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (5 stars)

From Amazon: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Nonfiction is not generally my cup of tea. Books are my escape into worlds created by the author, a respite from the demands of life. Nonfiction tends to feel like homework. Add a college-course-sounding subject like growing human cells, and it’s a recipe for major boredom.

Not in the hands of Rebecca Skloot. From the beginning, this book reads like fiction. Expertly alternating between Henrietta Lacks’ family and the science behind what happened, Skloot takes us on a journey of learning and caring. Never once did it feel textbook. Granted, she came across an interesting story. But in someone else’s hands, it could have easily been too scientific or judgmental. Skloot strikes a delicate balance between story and fact.

My heart broke for Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, and the rest of the family. Their mom advanced science for all of us, yet they couldn’t afford healthcare or other needs. Henrietta’s kids were left without their mother at a young age, and lost their sister in a traumatic way. You want relief and a slice of happiness, at the very least, for them.
I love that Rebecca put herself in the book, her experiences so crucial to the story. Since the book is nonfiction and not historical fiction, we needed the author’s personal reflections and experiences regarding her research and getting to know the family. One of the most powerful scenes is one where Rebecca and Deborah are visiting a family friend and pastor. Deborah has been suffering from stress and poor health. To help ease her burden, he frees Deborah by giving the worry to Rebecca.
"'LORD, I KNOW you sent Miss Rebecca to help LIFT THE BURDEN of them CELLS!' He thrust his arms toward me, hands pointed at either side of my head. 'GIVE THEM TO HER' he yelled. 'LET HER CARRY THEM.' I sat frozen, staring at Gary, thinking, Wait a minute, that wasn't supposed to happen!"
Thanks to the author, readers don’t just get the technical aspects of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. We see the journey of the family she left behind. Rarely do you find such emotional depth in a nonfiction book.

A highly recommended 5 stars.

For more information about the author and book, please visit the author's website.