Yesterday, the Reading Across the Pond book group read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the incredible story of the poor Southern tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
It was the first nonfiction novel that the group had read since Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama’s autobiography) over three years ago. They all agreed that it was a remarkable story that read like a novel. One book group member reported that she hadn’t been able to put it down over the holidays and that she had been sharing passages from it with her friends and family.
They had a long — and at times tense — discussion about medical ethics and whether what happened to Henrietta Lacks could happen (and was happening) in the UK. They also discussed racial prejudice and how Henrietta’s story compared to The Help.
Next month, the Reading Across the Pond book group will be reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.