Reading for Writers: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot takes us on the incredibly interesting and moving journey of her attempt to understand the issues surrounding the life of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and the science and politics of HeLa cells.  She weaves these things together to give a more captivating, more complete picture of each of them.  The structure of the book is one that makes the stories that Skloot tells much more intriguing. It may seem that a book about history, science, and social issues could be dry and unexciting, informative but a chore to trudge through.  Instead, Skloot gives the reader a page-turner, a book that is difficult to put down.  She does this by doing two very effective things.  One has to do with the way she structures the book.  She weaves the history, science, and politics together so that you are never reading any one of those things for long enough to get bored.  The other thing that she does incredibly effectively is personalize the history and science.  Not only does she make the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family personal, but she also tells the personal stories of  the doctors, scientists, and others involved in the history that she describes.

The structure that Rebecca Skloot uses in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is very interesting.  One might think that she would tell a story like this chronologically or by subject.  It is, after all, about science and history and a family past.  She could have chosen to divide it into parts dealing with each of those subjects.  She also could have chosen to structure the book chronologically.  But she doesn’t do that either. Instead, she intertwines the chronology and the subjects.  She begins and ends the book in the present time that she is writing.  The prologue starts with a photograph that is on her wall and then moves back to Skloot’s college years.  It then jumps to the voice of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, during the time that Skloot was researching and writing the book. From this prologue, we move quickly to  1951, when Henrietta became ill.  From the very beginning of the book, we know that we are not going to read a straight-forward chronology or a book about just the science or history involved in culture cells.  Skloot explores times as far back as the antebellum South.  The book ends with a “Where They Are Now” chapter and closes with an Afterword that discusses the current state of ethical issues surrounding culture cell research, even extending a bit into the future possibilities of how to deal with these difficult questions.  The way that Skloot weaves these things together not only keeps the reader interested, but also shows the ways in which the personal lives, medical science, and history are all intertwined.  Though this skipping around and intertwining could be confusing, Skloot does a good job of keeping things clear. At the start of each chapter, she has a timeline to show the dates that she is writing about.  In the back of the book, she gives a timeline and a cast of characters to make sure that her reader can always be on the same page as the story.

Skloot does something else that is unexpected in a nonfiction book about medical science.  She make each facet that she talks about highly personal.  As we can see from the way she starts the book, with her own personal experience, Deborah’s personal words, and a retelling of Henrietta’s personal experience, this is not going to be a book about impersonal facts.  Skloot doesn’t just tell her own personal story or the story of the Lacks family, however.  She extends this mode of storytelling into the personal stories surrounding the doctors, scientists, and many of the people involved in the ethical debates.  This helps to draw the reader in to the story and the issues surrounding the story.  Instead of a cold, clinical account of scientific discoveries and ethical debates, Skloot gives us the stories of the people behind the debates.  Not only that, she also extends this to telling her readers about her research.  Instead of only giving her findings and what she dug up regarding her research, she allows her readers to see how she did her research and the personal interactions that she has with people as she delves further and further into the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells.  She gives backgrounds and descriptions of people that she meets and conversations that she has.  All of this adds life and dimension to the science and history that Skloot is exploring, making it more interesting and pulling the reader deeper into the story.  Because of this, the doctors and scientists, Lacks family members and people that Skloot meets while doing research become not just historical figures, but characters in a rich story that Skloot writes.


3 thoughts on “Reading for Writers: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

  1. This was a really well-written book and an interesting story. Our area has a community reading room at the local university and we read this book last year. Ms. Skloot actually came to speak to the group at the end of our time of discussion and activities. Unfortunately, I was on vacation the weekend that she visited and I missed hearing her speak. Great review!

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