I’m still in the throes of a melancholy mood as I try to squeeze every second of enjoyment out of the last day of the last long weekend of the summer. I’ve been busy this weekend, cooking and baking and hiking and spending quality time with my cats before the new school year begins in earnest. I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl of fresh local strawberries and peaches - yum! That, too, will come to an end soon, so I’m savouring every drop of sweet juice.
This past week I read the next book for my Volunteer book club, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Although we don’t meet until next weekend, there were many outstanding holds on this book at both local libraries, because a movie based on it has recently been released on HBO, so I wanted to finish it as soon as possible in case any of my book club members have it on hold. I rarely read non-fiction, and generally it’s only because the title is a book club selection. This one is no exception; despite the fact that it was a best-seller when it came out in 2010, I did not read it, but one of my book club members mentioned that she read it and found it really interesting, so I thought, “Why not?!” This book tells of the author’s efforts to discover the story behind the most famous cells in history, the HeLa cells, which were the first cells ever to replicate themselves ad infinitum, which had a profound impact on scientific and medical research. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman in the US, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31. Cells from her biopsy were collected and added to the bank of other cells taken from various people during routine medical testing. The geneticist working on these cells expected them to die off after a few days like all the others, but to her surprise, they not only lived, they thrived and multiplied! While Henrietta’s condition worsened, despite radiation treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which had a wing dedicated to treating those who were unable to otherwise afford medical care, her cells lived on. After her death a short time later, these cells became a hot commodity among scientific and medical communities, both nationally and internationally. But who was the woman behind these cells, and what happened to her family members after her death? This book answers these questions for the reader, exploring the lives of Henrietta’s children, mainly her daughter Deborah, whose life was far from easy growing up, and did not get any easier as she became an adult. One of her main questions throughout the book went something like, “Why are scientists and companies making millions while my mother’s family members can’t even afford to go to the doctor?” Skloot explores medical ethics, and the science behind genetics, racial inequality of the medical profession over the past 100 years, and the difficulty in researching a topic when faced with roadblocks at every turn. Her research was thorough, her treatment of Henrietta and her family members was compassionate and fair, and her writing seemed fairly unbiased in terms of the blame the medical community as a whole should shoulder for the historical treatment of vulnerable patients. It was an interesting and enlightening read, evoking responses from this reader that ranged from frustration and anger to sadness and empathy, and also to a sense of forgiveness and joy . I think it was an excellent book club selection, well-written and filled with many discussion points. I will probably write about this book again next week after the meeting, so I’ll try to avoid too much repetition.
That’s all for today. Enjoy the rest of the long weekend, and have a wonderful Labour Day!
Bye for now…