Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I have heard so much about this nonfiction title and was ecstatic that our Valley Book Club picked it for its October discussion. It is what people now refer to as "narrative nonfiction" which to me means nonfiction that reads like a novel. Or in other words, nonfiction that I can read, understand, and even enjoy. And enjoy it I did!

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman who was treated for cervical cancer in the 1950's at Johns Hopkins hospital. The cancer spread rapidly, possibly because her cheating husband was constantly giving her one venereal disease after another. While treating her, a doctor at Johns Hopkins took a cutting from one of her tumors and put it in a petri dish and gave it to a scientist who was obsessed with finding cells that would continue to grow outside the body. These cells became HeLa cells, which did live outside of Henrietta and whose "offspring" are still being used in science today. The funny thing was, no one told Henrietta or her family that those cells were taken, and no one told them after they had reproduced by the millions. No one told them after these cells helped to cure diseases like polio. No one told them until some writers began to question who the cell donor was and began to dig into Henrietta's family. But none were successful until Rebecca Skloot.

Not only do we have a wonderful story of science and research here, but we also get a vivid historical story of Henrietta's world as a wife, mother, and woman. Skloot has woven the intricate details of cell duplication and reproduction along with the sorrows and harsh realities of cancer, poverty, discrimination, and struggles with faith. These are all rolled into a fascinating true tale of the power of one: one woman gave us what no one else could at the time, and it's changed the world and helped millions of people. A powerful story of survival even in death.

Don't miss this one - put it on your list just as the Valley Book Club has. And PLEASE post your comments so I can share them with our club!

Children and Fire by Ursula Hegi

I haven't heard anything about Ursula Hegi for a very long time, and so I was surprised and excited to see her new book. Hegi's Stones from the River is one of my favorites from back when I read every single Oprah Book Club pick about 15 years ago, and I've read everything I can by her. But it is Hegi's stories about World War II that are so memorable that their characters, like Trudi Montag, will live in your mind forever.

Children and Fire is the story of a school teacher named Thekla Jansen during the early days of Hitler's Third Reich. Thekla has replaced a Jewish teacher who she greatly admires and loves, but she struggles with her own unprejudiced nature and her patriotism and love of Germany during this difficult time. She so wants to impart to her boys what it means to be a good person while having to be very careful about what she says and who she says it to and watching books burn on the city streets. In addition to this struggle, Thekla's family upbringing come into play, an upbringing that in the end could prove dangerous.

I loved this book for it beautiful writing style and realistically flawed characters and the terrible history they cannot escape. I did find the movement of the book's chapters, which alternate from 1934 and Thekla's teaching days to the past and her mother's early life, very distracting at first, but I got used to it. I am always looking for books that teach me something new or allow me into the perspective of people with viewpoints which oppose mine. This book is a wonderful remembrance of what can happen when we trust leaders blindly and think we can allow ourselves to compromise our basic humanity just a little at a time.

I hope you'll pick this one up and then read Hegi's Stones from the River, if you haven't already. You'll never forget it. Also don't forget to post and let me know what you think!