Women in History
Women’s History is celebrated in March. Try these three recent books by and about special women.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks, or HeLa to scientists and physicians, was a poor tobacco farmer from the tiny community of Clover in Halifax County, Virginia. She worked the same land as her slave ancestors until she moved to Baltimore with her husband. Lacking an education and prospects, she found her main focus in life in holding her family of five children together, yet her cells--taken without her knowledge--became one of the most remarkable tools of modern medicine. During treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, a researcher scraped some of her cells for study. These were the first “immortal” human cells grown outside the body and reproduced over and over again, and they are still alive today, more than sixty years after Henrietta’s death. HeLa cells furnished the vital tools for developing the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping, for researching causes of cancer and viruses, and have been bought and sold by the billions. They have been known to every medical student for decades. Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave. Her family did not learn of her immortality or her role in scientific research until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without their informed consent. This is the compelling story of Henrietta and her family, especially her daughter Deborah, and their link to a chain of experiments on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control our own bodies. Author Rebecca Skloot first heard about HeLa cells when she was in a community college class for alternative school students and became curious about the identity of the donor of the cells known only as HeLa. This book is the result of years of investigative work to flesh out the cells’ structure with a name and a history. A fascinating story that I found impossible to put down, this is Booklist’s Top of the List for best adult nonfiction of 2010. It would appeal to readers who enjoy biography, history, or science, and could inspire teens to develop an interest in medical research. (Laurie Roberts)
The Grace of Silence
Michele Norris, the cohost of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" set out to write a book about "the hidden conversation on race" that is going on in this country. Along the way she unearthed painful family secrets that compelled her to question her own self-understanding; she traveled extensively to explore her own complex racial legacy. Her exploration is informed by hundreds of interviews with ordinary Americans and their observations about evolving attitudes toward race in America.
The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton was born in 1862 to Lucretia and George Frederic Jones. The expression “Keeping up with the Joneses” originated with her family. They represented wealth and high social status. Edith grew up during an era when it was believed that if a woman were to learn a lot it would affect her health in a negative way. It was also believed that it was detrimental for a woman to be intelligent because this would prevent her from being married. Women were to learn only what was needed. Edith’s mother worried about her daughter because from the time she began to speak she made up stories. Edith would hold a book and proceed to speak stories from her sensitive nature and vivid imagination. At the age of six, her dad began to teach her the alphabet and then words like cat and dog. One day she was sitting quietly with one of her father’s books. Her parents asked her what she was doing and she told them she was reading. Teasing, they asked her to read and, to their astonishment, she began to read from the book, which was a play about a prostitute. Edith had taught herself to read. They quickly found her more appropriate material and carefully monitored which books she read. Edith devoured all the adult classics. She spent those first ten years mostly in Europe and she learned to speak Italian, French and German. She also loved to write, but had to hide this from her mother for a long time except for a few poems that were more acceptable. I was captivated by this story. It was very interesting to me how this young woman learned to navigate within her society. She continued to educate herself by finding mentors and seeking out conversation with intelligent men. Edith was persistent in following her dream to be an author, eventually becoming one of the most successful writers of her time, publishing under her own name. I was especially moved to see how this wealthy young woman as she grew older was transformed as a result of her experiences of World War I into a deeply compassionate woman. She decided to remain in France during the war and established a place where first twenty, and then fifty, seamstresses and secretaries out of work could earn money and a meal each day. The numbers continued to grow. Edith also established a charity that helped refugees, a daycare for children suffering from tuberculosis and she made contributions to many other charitable organizations, writing friends in the U. S. to keep them abreast of what was happening in Europe, seeking to engage their involvement. Edith Wharton was an incredible woman, with failings, faults, successes and strengths. She persevered overcoming many seemingly impossible obstacles. This story will warm your heart and inspire you. If you enjoy biographies and are interested in seeing how a woman could evolve during this period in history, then you will love this book. (Jeanne Denton)
For these and more about women in history, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.