February 1, 2011

Immortal, to be or not to be? review

review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
author:  Rebecca Skloot
published: 2010
source:  bought myself to read for Indie Lit Awards

      Time for another confession.  This blog is getting good at extracting confessions from me.   I hated biology.  My biology teacher in the 10th grade had a list of 31 rules to follow.   In college I postponed biology until just before graduation.  Made a D.  Barely missed graduating on time because of that.  Bleh.

      So when I heard about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and her cells spreading around the world, I went "eh, preposterous, not interested."   Fortunately, I had to read this book to judge it for the Indie Lit awards.

     Am so glad I read it!  Skloot makes the scientific stuff easy to understand, without even talking down to me.  Her website summarizes:
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.
Skloot first learns about the cells in a college class.  Years later, she wants to find the woman behind these cells.  Her writing is full of exquisite description of places and characters.  She sits in a hotel room paging someone every few minutes while watching a huge clock with the letters B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R.     That same clock is mentioned several pages ahead, looking down on a Rolling Stone reporter who was also researching the same story.

Skloot tells us about many scientists and doctors by describing their characteristics and beliefs.  One researcher who wanted to find a way to preserve "the superior white race" later praised Hitler (shudder).  We are also introduced to Henrietta's family and children who are furious, "If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

Whether you like or dislike science, history, a study of ethics,  Skloot will lead you for a good ride through Baltimore and  rural poor Virginia, through the science labs and a mental hospital.  Where would we be without the knowledge gained from HeLa?  Thanks, Henrietta, we owe you.


Kathy said...

I thought this was a fascinating book... I listened to the audio version.
I had never heard of her or HeLa cells. It definitely made me think.

Karen said...

This is such a fascinating story. I saw the author on an interview a while back. I'll have to pick this one up - I was kind of worried that it would be scientific (translation - boring) so I was glad to read your review.