As soon as I read Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was sure it would find a lot of eager readers, but I didn't think it would happen so fast. Even before Dwight Garner's rave in the NYT on Tuesday ("one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time"), it was already in our top 10, and it has spent the rest of the week in the top five. Pretty good for book by an unknown writer about a subject that's hard to wrap up in a sentence or two. I know: I've tried. I'm not a big one for plot summaries in book reviews, but I spent most of my Spotlight review of the book on our Best of February page trying to explain just the barest bones of its story, and had hardly any room to say much about why I liked it.
Part of why I liked it was that story: Skloot grabbed hold of a fascinating tale for her first book. The cells Henrietta Lacks unknowingly contributed before her death in 1951, known as HeLa cells and legendary for their ability to thrive in laboratory conditions, are one of those basic building blocks of modern science that few people outside of labs are aware of, but that researchers worldwide have depended on for half a century. Henrietta's own story, and that of her family's, both before and after their discovery of her contribution, is a compelling window into the lives of poor African Americans during official segregation and after. And the question of who owns our cells, especially after they are taken from our body, remains a surprisingly open one--still being debated in the courts as tissue samples taken from nearly every American are stored, available for research, in fridges across the country. And the cast of characters that Skloot unearths, from the do-it-yourself tissue culture pioneer George Gey to a stranger-than-fiction con man named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield to, most hauntingly, Henrietta's mute daughter Elsie, who spent much of her short life in apparently horrible neglect in an overcrowded state mental institution, could fill a half dozen books.
So the story and the people will take precedence in any discussion of the book, but Skloot's telling of it deserves mention too. She balances the personal and the technical with grace, she manages to bring herself into the story when necessary without making it all about her, and she weaves all these threads in a remarkably efficient tale: it's a story that an undisciplined writer would have needed 600 pages to tell, and, more importantly, that a less dogged and compassionate writer would have considered finished in the space of a magazine profile. She pushes far beyond the novelty of this woman's short life and strange immortality to an understanding of her legacy that, if never complete, still feels full and well-earned.
I had the chance to talk with Rebecca last week, right before the book came out, and you can listen to our interview below, in three parts. We talked for quite a while, but there were still plenty of things I wanted to ask her about that we didn't get to: the strange historical circumstance that the federal government would entrust the initial mass production of the HeLa cell line, crucial for the fight against polio, to the African American researchers at Tuskegee University even as much of the country, including the Lacks's home of Baltimore, remained rigidly segregated; the prominent cancer researchers at the time who would inject patients with cancer cells for research without their knowledge or consent; and what Skloot has learned from her father, the writer Floyd Skloot, whose own medical condition has been the subject of his recent acclaimed books. But there will be plenty of chances to ask her anything you like: she's spending most of the next few months on tour for the book, and may well be coming to your area. (You can scroll through many of her appearances in the Book Tour section of her author page.)