The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is both a story of scientific progress and a biography of the poor Southern family whose matriarch, Henrietta Lacks, made that progress possible. It is also a critical exploration of the interplay between science, race, class, and ethics in the United States. Finally, it is, at times, the personal narrative of Rebecca Skloot, a reporter who worked for 10 years to learn these stories and to tell them. Cassandra Campbell’s performance captures the full range of tone in these elegantly woven narratives. She delivers what the story demands of her, uniting several storytelling styles into one single, dynamic voice.
In her narration, Campbell makes particularly masterful use of distance and proximity. At some points in the story, she has the cool tone of an investigative reporter, duly noting the gruesome evidence of patient mistreatment at the Hospital for the Negro Insane in the 1950s or the horrors of medical malpractice in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. When she tells the stories of the members of the Lacks family, her voice is warm and compassionate, but still carries the distinct distance of a biographer/observer. And, at a few rare but poignant moments in the story, Campbell’s voice sounds exposed and intimately close to the listener’s ear, as the narrative brings us inside Skloot’s own struggle to understand and cope with the uncomfortable truths and thorny issues Henrietta’s story raises.
Bahni Turpin, who performs the dialogue for all the members of the Lacks family, supplies those voices with more than the appropriate dialect. Though she speaks for several different characters some of them appear only briefly or infrequently in the story Turpin manages to give unique weight and depth to each. Her portrayal of Zacharia Lacks, Henrietta’s youngest son, is perhaps most exceptional in its taciturn conveyance of anger, love, and pain. Emily Elert
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells, taken without her knowledge, became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first immortal human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years.
If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons - as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.
HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bombs effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now, Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henriettas small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta's family did not learn of her immortality until more than 20 years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family, past and present, is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
©2010 Rebecca Skloot; (P)2010 Random House
"One of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time…The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of Erin Brockovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Andromeda Strain.…it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)
"Writing with a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force." (Booklist)
"Science journalist Skloot makes a remarkable debut with this multilayered story about 'faith, science, journalism, and grace.'...A rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people." (Publishers Weekly)
There is an interview with Rebecca Skloot at the end where she gives insight into how difficult it was to build this handful of threads into a story. In my view she did a spectacular job. She tells the Lacks family story with obviously compassion. You really get an appreciation of their perspective. Rebecca also does a sound job on the science, legal and moral fronts. Its an intriguing story well told. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story with some learning along the way.
This book was amazingly constructed from beginning to end. The narrators did a wonderful job with their voices making it feel like the actual people were speaking. Great surprise interview at the end with the author.Must read!
This story was referred to my by a colleague who happens to be a science teacher. My first thought was I am an ELA teacher will i find this book too scientific for me to understand? However I did not. This story is so powerful. There are so many issues that can be debated in a classroom setting or a book club setting: Ethics in science, jim crow laws, John Hopkins and financial compensation to the Lacks family, capitalism and geneticists. Excellent story. Heartbreaking at times. However, it provides great historical insight on how the world of pharmaceuticals, medicines and vaccines etc. began.
I'm an avid listener always searching for another good book and willing to share my thoughts with a pithy review.
No mystery or intrigue to report. Just a poor family upset by their inability to profit from the distribution of a family member's unique cancer cells...after her death. It's one chapter after the other of disappointment and complaints. It turns out the cells are very helpful to cancer researchers, but the writer doesn't provide much detail in this area. She just concentrates on the disappointments within the family. It results in a sad read.
Rebecca tells a story, that is so much more than a story. It's a piece of history that has and will forever change our lives and the medicine available to the world! Every person should know this story. Rebecca goes into some incredible detail, and the facts are so well researched. Thank you for telling Henrietta's story to the world!
I began this book thinking I would just get a glimpse into the story and put it down to get the work I needed to do done. Having it on audio however made me not want to stop listening. The story was heart wrenching and I was so angry about how the Lacks family lives turned out after the death of their mother. I listened to the entire book in two days! Needless to say, I didn't get nearly as much of my work done as I had hoped!
The voice acting came off as racist at times with a white female doing terrible impersonations of black people, it was bearable though. The story overall seemed to go off on tangents that were not necessary. I agree Debra was a major character, but I'm not sure why her childhood was a necessary addition.
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