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Full title The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author Rebecca Skloot
Type of work Biography
Genre Nonfiction, biography, medical history
Time and place written 1999–2009, Maryland
Date of first publication February 2, 2010
Publisher Crown Publishing Group
Narrator Skloot narrates the book, trying to stay as objective as possible. She includes her own impressions when speaking directly about events she experienced or interviews she conducted, but on the whole leaves it to the reader to make their own judgement. In addition, Skloot includes an extended quotation directly from Deborah Lacks at the beginning of the book.
Point of view
Skloot writes the sections that discuss the history of the Lacks family, Henrietta, and HeLa cells in third person, keeping herself out of the story and focusing on the active participants. If she interviewed a person from the historical sections herself, she speaks about that experience in the first person because she was a direct participant. She writes sections that detail her own research in the first person.
Tone Skloot’s tone is conversational, but not overly informal.
Tense Skloot writes in the past tense, except when discussing a subject of ongoing debate, such as issues in cell research.
Setting (time) The book jumps through time from Henrietta’s cancer in 1951 to when Skloot finished writing the book in 2009.
Setting (place) Clover, Virginia; Turner Station, Maryland; Baltimore, Maryland
Protagonist Deborah Lacks
Major conflict In 1951, researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a sample of cells from a cervical cancer patient that would change the course of medical research forever. However, the researchers took these cells without the knowledge, consent, or understanding of the patient’s family, causing them pain and distress.
Rising action In 1951, Henrietta Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. While she underwent radiation treatment, her doctor took a tissue sample from her tumor. From this tissue sample, George Gey created the HeLa cell line, the first human cell culture that could continue dividing indefinitely. When the Lacks family learned about HeLa cells, they were horrified that Henrietta’s cells had been taken without her knowledge, and that people were making a profit from them. Publicity from news stories about HeLa cells attracted the attention of a conman, who brought more stress to the family. Around this time, Rebecca Skloot made contact with the family in order to work on this book. Deborah agreed to work with Skloot as long as she stayed transparent and helped Deborah learn what happened to Henrietta and Elsie. Skloot and Deborah met with a researcher from Hopkins to finally see the cells. They then went to Crownsville Hospital to learn what happened to Elsie.
Climax Deborah’s cousin Gary performed a soul-cleansing ceremony to relieve her of the burden of Henrietta’s cells. After this point, Deborah had learned all should could about her mother and her sister, and had to let go for her own health.
Falling action Deborah wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t afford to do so. Instead, she focused on helping her grandchildren and grandnieces and nephews stay in school and go on to college. She died right before the publication of this book.
Themes Humanity, Authority, Immortality and Legacy
Motifs Scientific Racism, Racialized Poverty
Symbols HeLa Cells, Henrietta’s Red Nail Polish, Henrietta’s Bible
Foreshadowing The fear and mistrust Skloot encountered when first attempting to contact the family hints that they had been through a great ordeal.
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