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Another Notable–“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

I’d heard quite a bit about “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and so was pleased to see it in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books list.

Rebecca Skloot tell the story of Mrs. Lacks, who became immortal when shortly before her death in 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took tissue samples from a tumor on her cervix. Researchers were able to get the cells from that tissue to reproduce phenomenally. The cells, known as HeLa Cells (the first two letters of her first and last names) became a kind of medical commodity, since researchers needed human cells on which to perform all kinds of research. The family didn’t know, and were never compensated for them.

Skloot’s book is as much about the Lacks family as about the cells. At the time the cells were taken, doctors wouldn’t have thought twice about taking cells without permission, and especially wouldn’t have given consideration to taking cells from an African American. Lacks entered the hospital through a separate door, drank from a separate fountain, and probably got less care, than white people did.

The Lacks family didn’t know about the cells until much later. They received a lot of misinformation, that coupled with their own lack of scientific understanding to interpret what they were told. Much of Skloot’s story centers on their attempts to understand what happened. In particular, Lacks’s daughter Deborah takes center stage, in middle age when Skloots began the book.

This book meshes well with another Notable nonfiction, “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the Great Migration. Henrietta Lacks ended up in Baltimore because the men of the family found work there, moving north from Clover, Virginia.

Skloot successfully weaves together the scientific information with the story of this family. She creates a strong narrative thread.

I’m recommending this to many readers, those who enjoy a good story, nonfiction readers who especially appreciate a good story that actually happened, and to students of our American culture.

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