Friday, September 14, 2012

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

from here
I finally finished Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackes. I spent a lot longer reading it than I intended to, because the story bogged me down a little over the three-quarter mark.

I am probably not an average reader for a book like this. I love science stuff; I spend time reading the NYTimes science pages and anything related to outer space and dinosaurs that I come across. Maybe I just never really got over being 8 years old.

So Skloot was phenomenal turning the history of cancer and genetic research into page turning material. When Immortal Life was focused on fifty years of false starts and breakthroughs in cellular research, I was engrossed.

But, (and you knew there was a but, didn't you?) when the time came for Skloot to step into the story, she lost me. She connected with the Lacks family in a way that must have been authentic. She earned the Lacks' trust through the family's opposition- their distrust of outsiders, especially white outsiders; their layers of misunderstanding and misinformation about what Henrietta's cells were doing and who had them and how they got there; their lack of education and their susceptibility to hucksters.

I see why Immortal Life is a part of high school curriculums, especially here in Maryland (most of the action occurs in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins and the surrounded neighborhoods). Skloot deftly juggles the intersection of history, science, American socio-economics and race relations. She tells a difficult, potentially abstract story in a concrete way.

Maybe I'm dissatisfied because it is a story without resolution: justice is never really done, not for Henrietta nor for her family, who have unwittingly become a conscripted cornerstone for modern genetics. Maybe my reading slowed because I knew how the story ended: with the pharmesutical companies and the major research universities raking in profits hand over fist; while the little people, the victims of disease upon whose backs progress has marched, get nothing.

Book 33 of my book-a-week challenge.

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