It is difficult to summarize this book quickly. It’s an in-depth look at medical/bioethics. It’s a story about a poor Southern woman who died of cancer and had no way of knowing she would have an immeasurable impact on the rest of the world. It’s a story about a family and their lives and struggles. And it’s a story about an writer’s quest to find out the facts surrounding a mystery in the history of medicine, scientific research and bioethics.
HeLa is the name that scientists gave the cells that they took from Henrietta Lacks. These were some of the first human cells that easily replicated in culture. Before that, when scientists tried to grow human cells in the lab, they usually died, or only replicated a few times and then died. But Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells kept growing and growing and growing. And the scientists working with them started giving them to other scientists for experiments. Eventually these cells helped doctors and scientists develop new drugs and vaccines and helped with genetic research and cloning and the list goes on and on…yet according to most of Skloot’s research, Henrietta probably never knew they were taken or were being used. And most of the scientific world knew nothing of the person behind those cells.
Many years later, scientists working with Henrietta’s cells wanted to compare them with cells from her family members to do genetic research; that is when her family first became aware of Henrietta’s “contribution.” Their lives would never be the same again.
Crack Factor---10 For non-fiction or any book, this is a page turner. I blew through this book in just a few days.
Tears Shed Factor---9. This story is often overwhelming. There are many parts that made me gulp or choke back a tear or shake my head in sadness. I felt this story.
Distraction Factor---9.5. This book had me riveted to the page. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking of when I could crack the spine again, wondering where the story would turn next. And the issues raised in the book had my head spinning with multiple ethical questions.
Enrichment Factor—10++ I knew absolutely nothing about the bioethic issues raised in this book before I read about Henrietta’s cells. From now on, I’ll think about Henrietta every time I have a have a medical test taken or “give” a blood sample.
Writing Skills Factor—10+++ About halfway through this book, I gave my parents an excited mini-synopsis of the story over lunch. Both were intrigued and my dad took the book to read the inside covers. He noticed that the author is a professor of “creative non-fiction” at the University of Memphis. “How can that be?” he said. Creative NON-fiction? What an idea. We don’t often think of non-fiction as “creative” since it is supposed to be based on fact. I think he even used the term “oxymoron.” In the end we agreed that on the basic surface, it seems like non-fiction should be based on fact and calling it “creative” gives the illusion that you’re being “creative” with the facts, but that’s not what it really means. All writing is creative. And a great writer makes non-fiction sing while staying true to the facts. A great writer can spin an engaging story about almost any topic. Skloot makes this look easy. Impressed is an understatement when describing how I view Skloot’s skill.
Story telling Factor ---10. This is non-fiction, but Skloot does tell a fantastic story. She knows how to present the facts so that it flows like a story and not like a list.
People Factor---10. All the characters in this book are real people: Henrietta, her husband and children and cousins and friends and neighbors, and the doctors and scientists working with her cells. Skloot draws clear pictures of them and you understand them as human beings with feelings and faults. In a preliminary section of the book the author writes: “I’ve done my best to capture the language with which each person spoke and wrote: dialogue appears in native dialects…” I really appreciated this attention to detail. I love love love language and I appreciate regional and socio-economic differences in language as things that give richness and identity to our culture. This trueness helped me feel more a part of the story.
Surprisingly, the author herself is also character in this book, but it’s done so well that I can’t imagine any other way she could have told the story. If she hadn’t been part of it, I don’t think readers could understand the patience and perseverance it took to find and follow this story. She really becomes a part of it as she gets to know the Lacks family. It becomes her story, too.
Total Rating: 9.79