I rarely read non-fiction. It has to be a topic that really interests me or I won’t make it past the first chapter, unless the writing is superb.
I was at the library one night last week, and while my 3-year-old pushed around the wooden trains at the play table, I purused the small shelf of “parents reads” that the children’s library offers folks in my position. I saw The Immortal Life on the shelf, remembered the title and cover from that Best Of list, and decided to take a chance.
This is a fascinating story about cell cultures, about how the medical community treated blacks in the mid 1900’s, and how the HeLa cells have been flourishing to this day, doing their part in countless research projects designed to fight off disease, create vaccines or identify how human chromosomes work.
The story begins when Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five children, is treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins hospital in the 1950’s, when blacks and whites were still segregated. The medical team takes a sample of her cells from her biopsy, without her knowledge, and then something miraculous happens. The cells don’t die in culture the way every other cell sample does. In fact, they flourish and multiply. Soon, labs all around the world are using the HeLa cells in research. (Henrietta passes away from cancer within months.)
Years later, Henrietta’s family finds out about the cells, and are angry. This book tells their story, too. And the story of how the author was finally able to tell Henrietta’s story, through her family’s surviving members.
This book reads so easily, you forget you’re reading non-fiction. It’s got highs and lows, just like a fiction plot, but it’s describing real events. I’m not a science buff by any stretch of the imagination, but the concepts in this book were written so as to be easy to understand. Henrietta’s family didn’t understand what was going on with her cells, either, and her daughter, Deborah, pictured some of the experiments to be more like science fiction – hybrid human/plant monsters being created, etc. Skloot, who became close with Deborah while writing this book, tries to set the family’s mind at ease with her explanations.
For Black History month, why not read about a black woman who died over 50 years ago but whose cells are still living today and providing the medical community with possibilities to cure and treat many diseases? It’s easy to see why this book earned such critical acclaim when it was published in 2010.