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)
I love to read Biographies of Women, Business Leaders and Experts in their field. I love Historical Fiction with well developed characters.
The narration was compelling. The author did such a good job of mixing just the right amount of science with the human emotions of Henrietta's family
Learning the truth about Elsie broke my heart
The emotion came through as well as the wonder of Deborah and Rebecca's journey
Medical Mystery, Family Drama
I'm not a person who has ever been interested in science. Something about this story made me want to know more about Cells, Cancer and how our bodies work.
Science really isn't my thing. Any time someone starts talking about cells or atoms I slip into a coma so I'm not sure what motivated me to buy this book but I'm glad I did.
I enjoyed the fact that it was more of a story than just a collection of facts. It triggered thoughts on ethics and morals and I found myself thinking about this book even on my "off time".
Good listen - glad I did!
I love the story, very entertaining, well performed. I highly recommend to anyone with an interest and biology nursing science medicine or history
Say something about yourself!
I bought this book because it was highly rated. I read it till the middle, but switched to another book. It was too technical and no story line, at least till the point I stopped. The only question that I want to ask now is if the family of Henrietta ever received any compensation.
This is an excellent story but the author is far too narcissistic for me to handle. She manages to insert herself at every turn, as if she was victimized by the victimization of Henrietta Lacks.
This story should have been written on facts that did not include the author. If the author wanted to be included, the prologue and epilogue are excellent places for that. She was also condescending towards the subjects of the book. She acts as though the Lacks family is simple but they are not simple, they just did not have enough exposure to education or privilege by design. They trusted a lot of the wrong people, not due to simplicity, but because there was a profound level of ignorance the universe had to offer black people during that time.
I shed a tear or two with response to the generations of disadvantage this family was exposed to and the simplicity with which they were portrayed.
This book shares tons of interesting facts about the science behind HeLa cells and the woman from whom they came. It also touches on the ethics of tissue research and the ownership of the tissue once it is removed.
The story of the family of Henrietta Lacks and their journey to understand the impact of their mothers cells. This book makes you think about research and your medical records.
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