Saturday, August 7, 2010

Jim Crow Era: Fiction and Non-fiction

I recently read these two books back to back because they just happened to come in the same time on my "hold" list at the library.  Both books are based on events that took place during the Jim Crow era, though The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also interweaves current day events as we come to know the Lacks family.  

I was curious about The Help, having heard good things about it but also being wary of any book jacket telling me that I will need a "hankie."  Author Kathryn Stockett tells the story through three female characters - two African American women who work were domestic workers, and one young white woman who becomes interested in their lives.  As I read this novel, I felt immersed in the South in 1962 and the lives of all three of these women.  For me, the book had a breezy feel to it, despite being about such a serious topic as racial injustice.  Other than this contrast which I found a bit unsettling, I applaud Stockett's effort.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about science, bioethics, and the controversy over who owns elements of our body once they are taken from us.  Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died in 1951 from cervical cancer.  Unbeknownst to Lacks, a tissue sample was taken from her at Johns Hopkins University, and her cells became the first to live and grow outside of the human body.  Her cells became known as HeLa, and have been highly influential in cancer research and medical advances.  The Lacks family did not find out about Henrietta's cells being used for science until nearly 20 years later.  Interested in finding out about the DNA of Henrietta's ancenstors, doctors at Johns Hopkins contacted the Lacks family and then did research on them without informed consent.  As the family comes to know author Rebecca Skloot, we experience alongside them their wrestling with who to trust and how to feel about their mother's/grandmother's cells being taken without her knowledge.  Despite HeLa cells being worth millions of dollars, the Lacks family has never received any compensation, and ironically, many members of the family do not have health care.  I don't often read non-fiction books focused on science, but this was a fascinating read in which I learned a great deal about the history of experimentation on African Americans, biology, law and ethics.

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