Another magical book club meeting. Two months ago, I joined up with a coworker of mine and attended her book club. At the end of that meeting, hoping to insight me to return, they asked me what my favorite book was, and I said The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
First, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Now why on earth would a book about cells and science and medical advancements appeal to a girl who only walked through the science building on campus during winter when it was the shortest route to the English building? It’s because the author, Rebecca Skloot, spent a decade researching the subject and uncovering the family that belonged to Henrietta Lacks.
Sadly, we don’t know a lot about Henrietta’s life when she was alive. She died in her early 30’s and only one photo exists.
What makes Henrietta’s life so incredible is that she’s been living for the last 50+ years and will continue to live on! She lives on through her cells. Now known to have a rare enzyme that causes her cells to rebuild themselves, her cells are the ONLY cells to have survived and replenished themselves in history. Think of a medical advancement in the last 50 years. Polio vaccine? Cells in space? Chemotherapy? They all came as a result of tests done on Henrietta Lack’s cells. HeLa cells, as they are called after her, were taken involuntarily from a tumor in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s.
Now, 50+ years later, HeLa cells are sold in vials for $500 to $10,000! And up until Rebecca Skloot’s book came around, no one even knew who Henrietta Lacks was.
My book club is made up of women who are all 30 years my senior, and I am in complete awe of their intelligence and eloquence every time I meet them. To read this book with a group that is made up of teachers, professors, psychiatrists, and nurses was about as rich a discussion as you can get on this book!
The story is about more than science, though ultimately that is what started the story in the first place. A doctor taking samples and testing them. Fifty years ago, there wasn’t even a term like “informed consent.” And as you read the book, it becomes difficult to find fault with one party. Who is the real exploiter, is it the doctor who took the sample, the doctor who gave the sample away freely to other research studies and labs, or the journalist who first printed her name?
And what about the family? Their mother’s cells have saved thousands, millions?, of lives, and are being sold on the internet, yet the family can’t afford medical insurance.
As I said before, this book is not ONLY about science. It is a story about a family. A family deeply ignorant of education. A family that was abused in multiple ways, and received little closure or compensation. And the author spent a lot of time earning the trust of this family, teaching them, sharing first experiences with them, and helping them to heal. She didn’t fix things. In many ways, it’s a complicated issue that can’t be solved with a check or even with this book publication. No, she didn’t fix things. But she did tell their story, the story of their mother, Henrietta Lacks, how she changed the world and saved lives, and how through knowing their mother, their own lives could begin to grow again.
The author, Rebecca Skloot, shares her memory of taking Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and her son, Zakariyya, to a lab to see HeLa cells for the first time.
This is my favorite book. What’s yours?
Last night I was reading more of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Instead of picking up on the chapter I left off, I flipped to the back and started reading the acknowledgments Gruen wrote.
Psst. I also have a secret habit of reading the last sentence of a book before I get there. I know, I shouldn’t, but then when I really do get to the end and re-read that last sentence, it’s like coming home. I refuse to stop, don’t try to make me.
In Gruen’s acknowledgments, she first related how she came up with the idea for the story. She read an article in the newspaper about Edward J. Kelty, a photographer who traveled along with circuses in America during the 1920’s and 30’s. She became so transfixed with a photo in the paper, she immediately went out and bought two circus photography books. From there, the passion took over. She spent around 4-6 months researching everything circus, including visiting the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, which isn’t that far from where I live, so my honey and I are going to plan a weekend getaway to check it out! She spent a few weeks in Sarasota, Florida at the Ringling Museum and time at the Kansas City Zoo getting to study elephant body language and behavior. Want to start your own circus project? I kind of do. I’m fascinated with the book so far, and was intrigued that a whole story began after viewing one photograph in the newspaper.
I’m sure most of you heard the genesis about how Twilight series author, Stephanie Meyer began her books. She had a dream that was used in the meadow scene with Edward and Bella. She also spent time in Forks, Washington, the book’s setting, and now the community has more tourists than ever coming to see the houses and school Bella “went” to.
One of my all time favorite books is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I’ll actually be re-reading it this month for a book club. Skloot spent 10 years doing research for this book and it all started with a science class. She remembers her teacher wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board, and after that day no one knew a thing about her. She spoke with ethics advisers, lab technicians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and eventually family members to piece together a story so crucial to the medical industry and never told to the woman’s own family. Just a name on a blackboard launched an investigation into a multi-million dollar industry and one well-kept secret.
Her research went on to conduct interviews, review medical records, visit the hometown of Henrietta, and eventually make contact and earn trust of the Lacks family, thereby viewing journal entries of Henrietta’s daughter and family footage and photos. I am just floored by the amount of devotion Skloot put forward to make a difference in the lives of the Lacks family and to tell a story that helped shape every medical advancement you can think of. You really MUST read this book!
What I’m wondering is what was the moment that hooked you into your writing project? Did you read something in the paper, have a dream, see a name on the blackboard? Every writer is inspired differently, what inspired you? And what was the next step that took that captivating idea into a work in progress/published book?
I love NPR. Almost every program peaks my interest. When I’m driving, listening in to Chapter-A-Day, or Dr. Zorba, or Here On Earth, or the late night radio show programs with old school sound effects (one of my faves!), I like to imagine what other people are doing while they’re listening in. I would imagine in today’s day and age, most are driving just like me. But then some might be making dinner, doing work outside, exercising at the gym, rocking a child to sleep.
Yesterday’s guest was author, Michael Perry. If you’ve never read his work, you must! If you’d like a recipe for country living, equal parts back woods advice and survival 101, you’ll find it in his work. His background as a male nurse, EMT, and volunteer firefighter who grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin gives him an unreal edge to describing catastrophe and humor in the same scene. One of his first works about his hometown is called Population: 485. I read it this last fall. Since that book, he has continued his story by writing about marriage and family life in Truck: A Love Story and Coop: A Family, A Farm, And the Pursuit of One Good Egg.
Throughout the conversation, Perry comes off as very likable, humble, and down to earth. He jokes about speaking engagements, and he sincerely thanks his fans (the pockets of them that come forth, he says). He really does a great job of promoting his work, without sounding like a PR agent. He has a website and blog about his work, and he says yes (cause he needs the money) to as many speaking arrangements as he can. But I loved his honesty and interest in what his readers, or in this case callers, had to say. He appreciated their input.
One caller flattered him immensely by saying he was asked what book he would recommend if you were going to lend a book to President Obama, and he answered Truck: A Love Story. The caller’s reasons were that “Truck” depicts the everyday man of rural living and he would want the president to remember the mid/working class individuals who were just getting by and not be completely consumed by the political world.
I kind of trailed off from the rest of the program for a bit, cause I kept thinking “What an interesting question!” What if you could give a book to the president? What book would you choose and why?
I think that’s really hard to answer. If I had to pick just one, and make it really good one, I’d say The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. If ever there was a book that followed the generations of a family who struggled, and dealt with politics of race, class, education, and health care, this book is truly moving. I believe, and maybe I watched too many documentaries on Martin Luther King Day, but I really do believe that if we turn our eyes away from history, we are doomed to repeat ourselves. I think this story is one everyone should know.
What book would you recommend?