The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I finished last Sunday what I dare say may be the best book I’ve ever read. I know it seems shocking to say such a thing, especially as an avid reader who is constantly cycling through books and calling lots of them her favorites. But this book truly is different. It is unlike any book I’ve ever read, really, and is completely inspiring as a reader and as a writer. 

Though this may seem complicated to explain, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not really about Henrietta Lacks. It is about how doctors took cells from a tumor in her cervix and discovered that the cells were immortal. The doctors then shared the ever-multiplying cells with other doctors, and eventually HeLa (the abbreviation used to denote those cells specifically) were used to make lots of scientific discoveries. The cells also produced millions and millions if not billions of dollars in industry. All of this happened without the knowledge or consent of Henrietta’s family. And they received not one drop of the profits. 

That is probably the simplest way to tell the story. The author, who I’ve come to admire immensely, Rebecca Skloot, interviews lots of people involved, and spends quite a bit of time with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. When I was poking around this morning looking at things on Rebecca Skloot’s website, I found this video of her talking about how she did her research and interviews and things. I found it just fascinating. 

This book is incredible, and very inspiring to me. I found it inspiring not only as a reader, as Skloot tells the tales of the wonders that these cells have accomplished, the lives of Henrietta and her daughter, Deborah. I found it so fascinating from a writer’s standpoint. I am a really academic person; I love writing and English and history, yes, but math and science are really fun for me too. I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks partly because it gave me a major role model in Skloot. She went and got a degree in biology AND wrote this absolutely amazing book that took her an entire decade. I find her strength and determination so inspiring as a young reader and writer, especially since I hadn’t before thought of ways to incorporate my math- and science-loving academic side with thoughtful writer ways.

I am now completely taken with creative nonfiction. The only thing remotely similar to this that I’ve read was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. And that book is really nothing like this book; besides the fact that it’s creative nonfiction in a way, it’s about a totally different topic written in a voice that is not even comparable. It’s like apples and zucchini. Not even oranges. Zucchini. And I’m planning to read Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger, projected to be similar in creative nonfiction storytelling, but that may be in a little while, considering I have about two dozen books from the library and my bookshelf combined to get through first.

To finish up here: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is insanely good. I could not put it down. The characters, the writing, the order of events in terms of the details, the factual accuracy… It’s no wonder to me why this book won a lot of awards. And now it has earned a new one: my favorite and most inspirational book.

Read it, please, if you have a chance, to see what I’m talking about. I don’t think you can regret it. 



5 thoughts on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Pingback: Immortality: Henrietta Lacks | Illuminutti

  2. Pingback: Immortality: Henrietta Lacks | SouthWeb Org

  3. Creative non-fiction? What distinguishes that from simply “non-fiction”? Certainly filling in the gaps, projecting dialogue and motivations qualifies as creative when in non-fiction such as a biography. One of my favorite books is A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan which I highly recommend mostly because it pulled me into history, in this case, the Vietnam war, via a very personal angle of how the war changed a single man. Definitely needs to be on your reading list.

    • Thanks for commenting! In my research after I finished this book, I found that the projected dialogue that Skloot included was extremely fact-based. Creative nonfiction is by definition more story-based than nonfiction like a textbook or reference book where the pages are stacked with facts. And thank you for the recommendation!

  4. Pingback: Friday Night Lights | A Book and A Button

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