Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review: 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot

✰✰✰✰ The cells are known around the world simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah). HeLa refers to cells that were taken without consent and grown. While other cell samples died, hers thrived; no one knows why. Over the years billions of these cells have been produced and sold. Companies have turned the production of these cells into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Research in viruses, cloning, and gene mapping depend on HeLa cells. Additionally, HeLa cells have been used to develop the polio vaccine, have lead to important advances in cancer research, and have been sent into space. Today HeLa cells are invaluable to medical research.

But where did these cells come from? More importantly…who was the "donor" of the HeLa cells? For decades her identity remained a mystery. The researcher who first grew the cells threw journalists seeking her identity off the trail by creating a pseudonym. Thus the code name HeLa was thought to stand for Helen Lane. But that wasn’t her real name. The woman inside whose tormented body these aggressive cancer cells resided was named Henrietta Lacks. This is the story of her life and the contribution her unknowing “donation” has made to medicine and the world. Finally, Henrietta’s painful story is finally told with the sensitivity, dignity, and compassion she deserved in life, but didn’t receive.

The Bottom Line:
 Debut author Rebecca Skloot has masterfully braided together a story that incorporates multiple time periods and narratives. Skloot doesn’t sugarcoat anything; instead she uses the language of each person in their native dialects to construct a book that you will remember long after you have finished reading. 

Written in short chapters, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a surprisingly quick read. The book not only covers the biography of Henrietta Lacks, but informs the reader about medical ethics and cell research. Additionally, I found the author’s quest for information with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah compelling as well. Highly recommended for anyone interested in medical ethics, scientific discovery, and biographies. Also, highly recommended for book clubs.

Book Club Notes:
 My book club recently met to discuss this book. It was a lively discussion. In general we thought the book was both readable and discussible for anyone interested in the story; a science or medical background is not required to appreciate this book. Thus, I highly recommend this title for book clubs.

Additionally, as a discussion facilitator, I appreciated the ample amount of resources available about the book for discussion groups. Visit Rebecca Skloot’s website to download the complete reader’s guide in PDF format which includes information about the book and the author, discussion questions, a timeline, and list of characters. You can also access Skloot’s website for Book Special Features like more photos and videos.

Finally, you can find additional discussion questions at UW-Madison’s Go Big Read Program or check out the information at Random House.

 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Paperback published by Broadway Paperbacks in 2011. 400 p. ISBN: 978-1-4000-5218-9

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