My neighborhood book group recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book I had long wanted to read, and everyone agreed it was fascinating and well written. On a scale of 1 to 10, our group rated it a solid 8.
It is the nonfiction story of an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951 and whose cells became invaluable to the medical community and are still in use today by scientists all over the world to study disease, vaccines, treatments, genetics, and more. There’s more to the story, though. Henrietta and her family had no idea that doctors had taken Henrietta’s cells for study (a common practice at the time) nor any idea what happened to those cells and how they changed the entire field of medicine.
Henrietta’s family lived in poverty, unable to even afford adequate health care, while various corporations made millions of dollars selling her cells for research. Her daughter, Deborah, was a toddler when her mother died and knew virtually nothing about her mother’s life or death, until the author began research for this book.
Our group found plenty to talk about. We discussed the medical implications of Henrietta’s cells, how we felt about her family and the way they’d been ignored, how medical practice has changed over the years, and we came back again and again to the questions of medical ethics raised in the book that are still relevant today. We also agreed that we’d all been enthralled by the photographs included in the book, of Henrietta and her family and descendants, the perfect accompaniment to Skloot’s talented writing, making the story come alive even more for us.
This book reminded me in some ways of Laura Hillenbrand’s writing (author of Unbroken and Seabiscuit); Skloot has the same talent for telling a true story so that it is as compelling as a good novel. However, in this case, the author actually became a part of the story, as she got to know Henrietta’s family – and especially Deborah – and became more involved in helping them to understand their mother’s legacy. She tells Henrietta’s story alongside the tale of how she herself discovered and researched the story, alternating between Henrietta’s past, her own interactions with the family in the present, and the chronicle of Henrietta’s cells and their impact on medicine. It is an engrossing and thought-provoking book, sure to stay with you long after you finish reading it.
400 pages, Broadway Publishing