The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Entry One (Chapters 1–8)

I will start off by saying that I have already read this book before. However, my previous read-through was from more of a scientific viewpoint in contrast to a literary one.

This story, from the beginning, has two settings. The first few chapters explore the life of Henrietta Lacks over half a century ago. Her laid back yet labor-intensive childhood on her grandfather’s tobacco field, her eventual marriage to Day (David Lacks, Henrietta’s cousin), her multiple children, then the eventual discovery of her cervical cancer. She went to the only hospital nearby that admitted colored people, Johns Hopkins, where they examined her and treated her. Unknowingly to Henrietta, they also took a sample of her cancer cells that were destined to be the first known human cells to replicate endlessly, so long as environmental conditions were optimal.

The other setting is in modern day, where Rebecca Skloot is trying to find more information from Henrietta’s living family. She wants to write a book about Henrietta, about her life and not only her cells. However, the Lacks’ are reluctant to cooperate, as they have been bombarded and deceived by a multitude of reporters and journalists in the past over their dead relative’s cells.

After reading the first eight chapters of this book, I remember why I loved reading it the first time. I enjoy how Rebecca Skloot manages to seamlessly shift between past and present, tying together the plight of Henrietta and her cancer to the struggle of her modern day relatives and the cells that science never told them about until now. In this way, Skloot is able to show the connections between racism in the past and the ethnic barriers racism has left behind today. This is exemplified by how, in the past, Turner Station became a thriving community when local factories hired colored people in mass to work the jobs that white people wouldn’t dare touch. But today, after the factories closed down, Turner Station has become a small community of colored people without enough jobs to go around.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoy is how it is nonfiction. This serves to make every interesting or emotional part of the story even more interesting or emotional. Knowing that George Gey actually built all of the interesting contraptions he used in the lab from scrap makes this fact more fascinating; knowing that Henrietta’s cells were actually taken without her informed consent makes it more shameful.