The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot, award-winning science writer, is well-known for her works of narrative science writing. Her impressive bio includes a wide breadth of topics and media works. Henrietta is Skloot’s first attempt at writing a book, however, and due to its New York Times bestseller status, the multitude of awards it’s received, and the incredible number of publications that have named it “best book”, I suppose it can be considered a success.
The nonfiction novel recounts Skloot’s own journey as she delved into her own curiosity about Henrietta Lacks, the name behind the HeLa cells. After a community college biology professor intrigued Skloot in the subject with a brief introduction to the woman who’d died of acute cervical cancer, unaware of the effect her cells would have on scientific advances for decades to come, Skloot took it upon herself to track down more information. Eventually, Skloot dedicated her work on the dream of writing a book that revealed the humanitarian side of the HeLa cells–telling the story of the woman who was Henrietta Lacks. However, by the time her research was complete, it was evident to Skloot that she could no longer write the story objectively: “Without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine” (Skloot, 23).
Skloot divides the novel into three parts: Life, Death, and Immortality. She seamlessly glides between fact-ridden, informative passages and personal, dialogue-driven narrative. The heading of each chapter includes a timeline, which helps the reader navigate the non-chronological telling of Henrietta’s story. Complicated biological motifs are broken down into manageable sections, while Skloot manages to give meaningful information without “dumbing down” for nor overburdening readers with a non-medical background.
Through Skloot’s voice, we hear accounts from many of Henrietta’s family members. Skloot is a straight-forward narrator; she recounts her interactions with Henrietta’s colorful daughter, son, and husband seemingly uncensored. Her honest story-telling, combined with the natural dialect she chose to include in direct quotations from the Lackses, leave an empathetic reader wondering how they might navigate the world of advanced science and medicine, without more than a grade school education, knowing that the answers to their family history would be found in the charts and data they could barely understand.
“When I go to the doctor for my checkups I always say my mother was HeLa. They get all excited, tell me stuff like how her cells helped make my blood pressure medicine and antidepression pills and how all this important stuff in science happen cause of her. But they don’t never explain more than just sayin, Yeah, your mother was on the moon, she been in nuclear bombs and made that polio vaccine. I really don’t know how she did all that, but I guess I’m glad she did, cause that mean she helpin lots of people. I think she would like that.”
from the section “Deborah’s Voice” (pg. 24)
Skloot manages to remain unbiased in her writing; though her relationship with and empathy for the Lackses is evident, she presents the view of the medical world, as well. Consent laws were different in 1951 when Henrietta’s doctor sent a small sample of her cervical cancer lesion down to the pathology lab for diagnosis. Dr. George Gey had worked unsuccessfully with multitudes of cell samples in the past–he and his staff were utterly shocked with their results of Henrietta’s cells. Skloot leaves it to the reader to decide for themselves what, if anything, the world of science owes Henrietta’s ancestors.
Although some of the middle section seemed to drag a bit, and many of the Lacks characters became muddled in my brain (I discovered the Cast of Characters [pg. 318] too late in the game), I would recommend Skloot’s first novel to anyone interested in learning more about a subject not widely-covered in the past. The accessibility of Skloot’s writing make it easy for readers to understand the importance and implications of the HeLa cells. This novel, which includes a Reading Group Guide (pg. 356)–at least in my Nook Book edition–makes an excellent choice for a book group looking for a nonfiction choice that reads well and opens up a wide array of discussion possibilities.
All in all, I would give Henrietta 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Watch the book trailer here.