The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I am reading this book now, a little bit after it was the featured book of a book club that I belong to in Phoenix, Sisters of the Desert Sun. I'm sure you've heard of The Immortal Life... since it's been highly publicized . It's the story about Henrietta Lacks, a black Southern woman who had her cancer cells taken without her knowledge and used as an important tool in medicine. Her cells were the first to become immortal, they've been replicating for half a century.

Anyway, I am struck by the poetic vision of the author, Rebecca Skloot. This could have been just a science story with a little narrative about the Lacks family thrown in. Instead Skloot seems interested in the social justice angle of the story and uses juxtaposition, irony irony, and other literary techniques to dig into the heart of the story. Take this passage about the white male researcher, George Gey, who takes the HeLa cells as they are known and starts distributing them:

He sent shipments of HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places between. Those researchers gave them to more researchers, who gave them to more still. Henrietta's cells rode into the mountains of Chile in the saddlebags of pack mules. As Gey flew from one lab to another, demonstrating his culturing techniques and helping to set up new laboratories, he always flew with tubes of Henrietta's cells in his breast pocket. And when scientists visited Gey's lab to learn his techniques, he usually sent them home with a vial or two of HeLa. In letters, Gey and some of his collegues began referring to the cells as his "precious babies."

--from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Copyright 2010 by Rebecca Skloot

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