Friday, June 3, 2011

More on Henrietta Lacks

Two days ago, Vicki Cobb used Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as the jumping-off point for a post on how authors and publishers determine a book’s length, in the process deciding how detailed a story they will tell. Before we leave the topic of Skloot’s book, I want to add my two cents. I’ve just finished reading it—actually, listening to it—and my overriding reaction is that it just might be the perfect work of nonfiction. It combines dogged reporting, extraordinary interviews, and masterful descriptions of scientific phenomena and legal and ethical issues that make complex content accessible to all.

Skloot’s book is at once a compelling detective story, an unforgettable science lesson, and perhaps the best portrait of an African-American family since Alex Haley’s Roots. Her storytelling style is reminiscent of Fannie Flagg’s in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, a book she says she used as a reference, with shifts between clearly labeled time periods that add perspective and richness to the tale. In a book about science, what one takes away first and foremost is the humanity of people whose lives were impacted after scientists at Johns Hopkins University took malignant cells from Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer 60 years ago at age 31.

I am more than a little surprised that a book on cell biology has affected me in this way. Science isn’t exactly my strong suit. Back in the early 1990s, when I was editorial director of the math and science magazines at Scholastic, my science editors used to throw their hands up in frustration as they tried to drum into me the difference between a solar and a lunar eclipse. But in Skloot’s book, understanding the science is a means to understanding the history of the Lacks family, and Skloot explains complex concepts such as genetic research and the life cycle of a cell so well that it’s not an impediment for science-phobes like me. She gives just the right amount of detail so the technical information doesn’t interfere with the storytelling.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was Skloot’s first book, and her passion for her subject and dogged determination to get the story right make me think back to my work on my first book, A Whole New Ball Game. An author “owns” her first book differently than she owns her subsequent ones, when editors have imposed deadlines and critics and readers have expectations based on previous work. Skloot spent more than a decade pursuing the story of Henrietta and the HeLa cells. (At the time, cell lines were designated with the beginning two letters of the donor’s first and last names.) She did odd jobs and used credit cards and student loans to stay afloat and pay for scores of trips to see scientists, doctors, and members of the Lacks family. She followed her own timeline, which was dictated by the development of her research rather than by a date in a book contract.

As Vicki mentioned, Skloot will bring out a Young Reader’s Edition of her book in 2012, co-written with Gregory Mone. Aimed at middle graders, it will be published by Knopf and will run 256 pages, about 100 fewer than the “adult” edition. I’m curious to compare the two books. Other than the sometimes graphic descriptions of physical and sexual abuse suffered by the Lacks children and the violent and promiscuous behavior of some characters, the original book seems appropriate for younger readers. Granted, as Vicki said, it runs a bit long, but I wonder what will be edited out.

There’s also an HBO film in the works, being co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood. I can’t wait to see it.

Are you a fan of Skloot's book? What do you expect will be different in the Young Reader's Edition?


Karen Romano Young said...

I'm fascinated. Thanks for letting us know about this book -- and the films to come!

Trevor said...

My favorite kind of non-fiction helps me learn something about science, culture or history. Suggestions?

Jennifer said...

I, like you, enjoyed Skloot's book and was very compelled by the Lacks Family story. However, I don't think it's appropriate to say it's "the best portrait of an African-American family."

The book presents a very in-depth portrait of the Lacks family and their individual experience, but extending this portrait to all African-American families makes an unfair generalization. If we say it that way, it seems like we're saying that all African-American families are impoverished, uneducated, unhealthy, and unstable.

We have to remember that there is no one singular African-American experience. All people, families, and life stories are different!

That said, I'm currently seeking middle grade non-fiction that is equally compelling as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I'm interested in the MG version of this book!

Sue Macy said...

In saying that Skloot's books was "perhaps the best portrait of an African-American family since Alex Haley’s Roots," I certainly didn't mean to imply that the experience of the Lacks family was emblematic of all African Americans. Rather, I meant that it was a very rich exploration of the specific challenges and struggles of one family. That was not what I expected when I picked up the book. At any rate, I'm glad you enjoyed it, too.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for clarifying, Sue. I misunderstood your original point, but I see what you're saying now!

Lorraine said...

Immortal Life is one of the best science books of the decade, IMO. Skloot said that it's as much about Deborah, the daughter whose trust she had to earn, again and again, than about the cells. Deborah comes to understand what the cells are, and what they mean (for her, her family, the world), over the course of the book, and that transformative arc is echoed by us readers (old and young). Brilliant. Can't wait for MG book, movie—and to see what topic Skloot tackles next (tho, as you point out, probably without the same ownership as the maiden book).