As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

April 11, 2011

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot, 2010



The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksFrom a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. (Amazon)

Review by Jessica Day George, Young Adult & Middle Grade Author, and Bookshop Talk Host

So incredibly fascinating!  For sixty years nearly every medical doctor and scientist in the world has run their experiments using cultured cells known as HeLa . . . which all came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951.  The medical and scientific advances that have been made using these cells are immeasurable, but that isn’t what makes this book so fascinating. 

What makes it so wonderful is how it is also an in depth look at how the life and loss of this one woman has affected her family.  While researchers at Johns Hopkins used the HeLa cells to find a cure for cervical cancer (the cause of Henrietta’s death), only a few miles away the Lacks family lived in abject poverty, uneducated, and plagued with health issues that they could not afford to have treated. 

What really moved me about this story was how ignorant the family was, not only of their mother’s contribution to medicine, but about what was even happening with the cells, and I was angered by how little Johns Hopkins or anyone else did to help them understand.  The first they heard that some of Henrietta’s cells had been taken and that they had survived was over ten years later, and then they had no idea what that meant.  No doctor, scientist, or reporter tried to help them learn about their mother until Skloot came along in 2001. 

For thirty years they were laboring under the impression that Johns Hopkins had kept actual body parts from Henrietta.  Even when it was explained that they had only kept cells (and then they had to be taught what “cells” are), the family then feared that the cells were truly alive, that they felt pain and suffered when they were injected with diseases. 

What Skloot has done by working with the family (she did research and interviews for over ten years) has helped the family by teaching them to trust outsiders, and by helping them learn about their mother’s life and her life after death.  Her children were very young when she died, and thanks to Skloot they were put in contact with friends and family who taught them about her fun-loving personality. 

They learned the fate of Elsie, Henrietta’s oldest daughter who was institutionalized in 1950 for “idiocy,” but was in all probability merely deaf and epileptic.  This is an amazing story!

MARKET: Adult Nonfiction
LANGUAGE: Some salty language from irate members of the Lacks family
VIOLENCE: mild
SENSUALITY: a young girl is molested by her uncle, frank diagnoses of syphilis and gonorrhea, and it’s effects on unborn children


Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Rebecca Skloot

To learn more about the reviewer, Jessica Day George's books, go here

2 comments:

Kim said...

This sounds intriguing and heartbreaking. Thank you for the review, Jessica!

Lady Thought said...

Jessica, thanks so much for this awesome review, this book would not likely have found its way to me otherwise. I was disturbed and fascinated and cannot believe how much of the story I did not know. Stayed up until almost 2 am reading it several nights in a row.