I’m not sure when I turned a corner, but in previous non-fiction reviews I would always say, “I don’t read a lot of non-fiction buuuut…” somehow, as I’m look at maybe my 10th non-fiction review in the past two years, I think I’ve turned into a non-fiction reader. It’s still a bit of a struggle at times, I get bogged down when there are a multitude of characters, but I have really grown to enjoy learning about real life accounts, particularly memoirs and historical accounts of minorities and the marginalized. I share this anecdote in case, like me, you always wished you enjoyed non-fiction. Like many things that are good for you, it might just take a bit of discipline.
I was completed riveted by Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women and in fact find myself, months later, still preaching to anyone who will listen about this book. Even I have gotten tired of hearing myself talk about it! Well, good thing I finally tackled Skloot’s telling of the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, because now I have another outlet for my righteous indignation. What Henrietta’s family went through, even independent of her cells, is a tale of poverty and hardship. It is a tale steeped in sadness, and that’s even before we know about the sad story of her daughter Elsie who was institutionalized and nearly forgotten. But I digress.
This book is really almost three separate narratives: 1) The true story of Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cancer cells that have revolutionized science 2) the story of the Lacks family in present day and 3) Skloot’s journey to educate herself, educate the world, and write this book. She keeps herself to the background, but she is still there ever present and a rich and compelling character along with everyone else. It’s a lot to tackle, but Skloot structures the book in a way that is easy to follow and very interesting. Also, there is even a fourth thread, as she provides insight into how medical research works, who profits, and how we as patients have little agency, after initial consent, over how are samples are utilized by the medical community. She works hard to not draw judgment, but rather just detail the processes that exist.
I’m not sure what conclusions I draw from this book, but it is one I’ll be mulling over for quite a while.