Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This nonfiction work has been all over the various media because the summary of the book is immediately interesting--the most famous cell line in all of science--the HeLa cells--they were used to create the polio vaccine, study cancer, and test the affects of the atom bomb--turn out to come from Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished black female tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. And her family never knew about the HeLa cells until scientists came calling wanting to study their DNA...and explaining their case so poorly that Henrietta's husband first thought she has been kept alive in a lab being studied for twenty some years...

Apparently Gordon Lish liked to tell fiction students that all you needed to structure a story was any three things which you would then braid together, alternating between the three. (a useful trick for when you get stuck). And one of the reasons this book is so good is because it tells not one story but three--the story of Henrietta, the story of her cells, and the story of her descendants. Structurally the braid moves you quickly along all three story lines, but most importantly each storyline is equally interesting. Her descendants are deeply deeply affected by the loss of their mother, and all the misunderstandings that follow their contact with researchers are tragi-comic, and most importantly, their belief that Henrietta is a kind of angel (her cells are called immortal and they believe her soul is in her cells) shows just how high the stakes are for them. But interestingly one of the most moving storylines for me was one that falls just outside the braid--the story of Henrietta's first daughter who was probably mentally disabled and died, unknown to her siblings, in a government home. It's a storyline that does not fit tidily in with the other three, and mainly seems to be there at the impetus of Henrietta's other daughter, who always thinks of her lost sister as a casualty of losing her mother, but it's a slightly messy addition that works to deepen the emotion of the narrative. A case for not keeping your structure or even your topic too clean and controlled.

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