The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks died at age 31, her body racked with cancerous tumors growing out of control. She was a poor black woman in the public ward of Johns Hopkins hospital in 1951, a person who hid her intense pain from her family and friends as long as she could. Her story is one that could have been forgotten, if not for the fact that the cells taken from her cancerous tumors transformed science, research, and medicine.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a complex book. At times it is a biography of Henrietta Lacks and her family, from the early years of the century until today. At times it is a science volume, explaining the ways in which HeLa cells have contributed to cancer research, immunization research, and so forth. At times it is a memoir of one persistent researcher looking for answers. In all aspects, it’s a look at the history of race relations in America, especially in terms of medical care and privacy. I found it so fascinating, I did not want to stop reading, in my curiosity of what could possibly happen next.

The Immortal Life opens up plenty of issues for discussion: how would you feel about your cells being kept alive? What if it would further science? How would you feel about your deceased mother’s medical history then being shared with the medical community and the world without your permission? How would this story be different if Henrietta Lacks was not a poor black woman? How would her legacy be different if she were not who she was? What right did Rebecca Skloot have to open up her family’s past to a biography of this magnitude? What do you think of the ethical, moral, and cultural implications of Henrietta’s story?

Now that I have finished, I have yet more questions. I look forward to having a book club discussion about this some day. There so much in there to ponder, even including the presence of the narrator, Ms Rebecca Skloot. Wasn’t her actions just as morally and ethically questionable as the medical professionals? She pester the Lacks’ family in order to get them to tell her their story. It seems pretty clear that they did not want to talk to her, and only her persistence over years made it possible for her to write the story. Never the less, Henrietta Lacks is one of those well written nonfiction books that leaves me wanting more. Well done and highly recommended!

Thoughts on The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

Yesterday, I reread The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (first published 1981). I loved it as a child. I remember learning about Iroquois Indians and longhouses and being fascinated. I loved the magical adventure when a toy comes to life.

For those that have not yet read the children’s novel, young Omri locks his plastic toy American Indian in a cupboard and the Indian comes to life! His friend does the same to his plastic cowboy, and the result is disastrous.

As an adult, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the basic errors (false and negative stereotypes) in this book. I also recently finished a nonfiction book about the first Americans, 1491 by Charles Mann, so I believe that my perspective on how the native Indians really were makes me uncomfortable with the stereotypes encountered in this children’s novel today. Looking at The Indian in the Cupboard 30 years after it was first published, I certainly see it as inappropriate and dated. I’m not just trying to be “politically correct” although that is a term that could be applied to me I suppose. It’s somewhat disturbing to read the inaccuracies and the inherent racism in the boys comments … and in the author’s suggestions from those comments.

A few of the things that disturbed me:

  • The Indian’s pidgin English. While I’m sure there would have been some language barrier between American Indians and colonists in the early 1700s, the Indian’s pidgin is ridiculously stereotyped. Did the author research how he’d have spoken, or was Little Bear’s English based on the stereotypes in Westerns?
  • The Indian is stereotyped as a proud warrior that wants to kill and scalp because he can. Scalping was not that wide spread, and while there was scalping during the French-Indian War, Little Bear’s obsession seems disproportional to what I’ve found about the Natives. Few Haudenosaunee warriors joined the British in campaigns.
  • Little Bear calls himself Iroquois when he really would have called himself Haudenosaunee. There are other out of character things. The chiefs of the Five Nations were not so bossy; it was much more of a council. That Little Bear would assume the title chief after the unknown chief died in the cupboard just doesn’t resonate with who his people were in terms of government. “Chief” is quite a symbol of respect, not necessarily a self-appointed inherited title.
  • The cowboy’s racist attitudes toward the Indian may fit in with the Westerns on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, but how accurate were they? As soon as he saw the Indian, he wanted to kill him. Did 1880s cowboys just immediately kill Indians they saw? This seemed rather extreme and stereotypical.
  • Neither one of the magical toys were people; they were types. True, Little Bear was brave and the cowboy was wimpy. But then boys turned on the TV and became just as racist, laughing at the Western. The characters in the book were like those in a glorified Western (albeit one for kids). What does this really say about the people who supposedly really lived in history? Omri supposedly has learned they are people with feelings, but he’s still playing with them right up to the end.
  • Others have compared playing cowboys and Indians to something as offensive to playing slave master and slave. While I’m not sure about that, there is something inherently unequal, unfair, and discomforting about portraying these “people” as toys to interact with each other, starting with the fact that Omri felt he couldn’t play with the Indian unless he had a cowboy as well.

All this is somewhat sad for me to say, since the book is well paced, magical, and simply fun from my WASPy perspective in the twenty-first century. It’s too bad its not one I can readily recommend today. If I were American Indian, I would not have found it “fun.” And that to me is a good reason I shouldn’t be encouraging my son to read it.

What do you think?

To put it another way, at what point is racism in semi-classic literature no longer okay? I ask because there were likewise a few racist comments in The Secret Garden where I recently reread, and I’ve encountered it before in other older classics for children, like Kipling and so forth. But it surprised me how racist this book was, and it’s only thirty years old.

At any rate, if I do hand it to my son when he’s older, it will be with lots of discussion about the attitudes and inaccuracies found therein.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Eliezer Wiesel was a deeply observant 13-year-old Jewish boy when Moishe the Beadle came to his town with descriptions of the horrors of the war, where Jewish men, women, and children were buried in graves they had themselves dug. No one in Eliezer’s town of Sighet in Hungary believed this was happening. It only a year later, in 1944, when Hungary was overrun by the Germany army, that the Jews began to worry. As their rights begin to be taken away, the community gets restless. They are even excited when they hear they will be transported out of the city, because that means something will be different for them!

Night by Elie Wiesel (published in French 1958/English 1960, audio recorded by Jeffrey Rosenblatt) is Elie’s poignant and personal reflection on his experience: being forced into a cattle car, entering Auschwitz, working in Buchenwald labor camp, and watching friends and loved ones die even as he lost his own will to live. Although Wiesel’s gorgeous prose is well deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it is his story of shattered faith in God, frustrated dreams as a teenager, and loss of belief in the humanity of his fellow men that really make Night a classic. Did people really do this to other people?

The horrors of the event known as the Holocaust as simply unbelievable. It is nearly impossible for me to comprehend the horrors that one people forced on another, and so reading accounts such as Wiesel’s are all the more important. A common theme in Night was, obviously, the darkening of hope and the darkness that enters Wiesel’s soul, never to leave him. When one experiences what he experiences, life will never be the same. Contrasting with the image of night that is so prevalent in his memoir is the image of fire: children burning, bellies suffering from hunger, and hatred growing in his soul. A young idealistic boy was left behind and what remained was a man without faith in the good of humanity and the love of God.

I listened to an audio recording of the book, and I think this made Elie Wiesel’s account all the more powerful. Wiesel’s story was less than four hours of narration (120 pages in hard copy) but nothing was missing.

His story is one I hope never to forget. I was in awe of the strength of the human spirit to survive at the same time I was horrified by the evil of others.  Although other stories of German concentration camps may be more hopeful about humanity (The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, for example), Night is an important and classic memoir that should be read.

Wiesel originally wrote this memoir in Yiddish, titling it And the World Remained Silent. In his new preface to the edition translated by his wife (2006), he says, ” I don’t know how I survived.” I don’t know either. I will forever be in awe of the power of the human spirit to overcome horrors, and I will remain horrified myself by the fact that humans could do this to each other in the first place.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Quicksand, Nella Larsen’s debut novel (published 1928) was not nearly as satisfying to me as her second one, Passing (published 1929), which I found a complex but intriguing look at race and repressed sexuality for a light-skinned “coloured” woman in New York during the Harlem Renaissance (thoughts here). Despite my frustrations with Quicksand, it is still a rewarding read, especially in its historical context as a defining novel of the Harlem Renaissance.

In Quicksand, mixed-race Helga Crane, like other protagonists in the Harlem Renaissance novels I’ve read, struggles to find her place in a racist world. Continue Reading