Thursday, September 18, 2014

One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard

Why I Read It: Continuing my lifelong fascination with the Civil War; also, Glory! is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Summary: The story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

My Thoughts: I, of course, wondered what would be different about the book, having seen the movie as a teenager. But I didn't linger on that notion. There were a few major departures, like iconic lines attributed to one historic figure in the movie but actually uttered by another in the historic record, the displacement of events from ships to the shore, etc. But they in no way ruined the memories of the movie for me; I now just know where they are.

The key to reading this story in the wake of the movie is to know that it is biographical in nature, following the life of Robert Gould Shaw from childhood to death. The book in no way "fleshes out" the handful of leading African-American characters in the film. That was just never the author's intent. We learn a little about Shaw's superiors and the men who reported directly to him, somewhat about his family, but mostly about Shaw himself, what fueled him, and what fears ultimately consumed him.

The book is also a wonderful immersion into Victorian Boston, the world of Governor John Andrew, of William Lloyd Garrison and others. It brings us back to a place fired by a notion, the eradication of slavery. It brings us into the presence of Frederick Douglass. It brings us into the heads of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as they maneuvered the chess pieces that led to the arming of African-Americans - including some former slaves - and, in Davis' case, the divining of consequences for the captured officers who oversaw them. While the South promised swift "justice," the North promised to retaliate in kind, eye for an eye, with Confederate prisoners, should anything happen to Union officers of African-American troops.

I think when we consider this book, we have to take two things into account. One, it was published in 1965, during the centenary of the Civil War. Two, it was published in 1965, during the Civil Rights movement. I would love to know how it was received when it was released, for if nothing else it is a story of inspiration, as portrayed in the movie two decades later.

Last year I spent a lot of time walking in cemeteries, and each time I came across a 54th soldier, I stopped and paid respect. I had to. For some reason, I couldn't just walk on by.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Why I Read It: The story seemed too interesting to pass up.

Summary: A reporter follows the story of the "immortal" HeLa cells back to the "donor's" family, then walks with them through their own journey of discovery about their past.

My Thoughts: We're only a hundred years removed from dirt roads and horses and buggies, and in some places not even that much. We're only a century and a half beyond the American Civil War, the conflict that ended slavery in the United States. We've come a long way, but we are not as advanced as we think we are.

In some ways, the rushes to advance have occurred in misstep. Nowhere is this reality better exemplified than in the juxtaposition of the American medical industry of the 1940s and 1950s and the home life of the Lacks family in rural Virginia at that same time. Physicians at Johns Hopkins diagnosed patients there using words the latter never had a chance of learning.

For many Americans the concept of rural poverty is undecipherable. We can say we understand poverty and get what is meant by living a rural life, but until we've seen it in action, considered it from all angles, we just don't truly know what it's all about. And so we come to the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta lived that life in the Jim Crow South, marrying a cousin and dying of cancer at a young age. Her cancerous cells - without any familial consent - were taken for lab use and became the standard experimental cells used in research around the world. They are sold today for large sums of money, yet her descendants cannot afford health care.

Skloot takes us on the road with her as she does her research. The book is not a straight history (though in some places it certainly is), but rather a first-person walkthrough of meeting the Lacks family and participating in their exploration of Henrietta's life and legacy. The story eventually centers on one daughter and her quest for knowledge about her mom and a sister mysteriously lost in the past as well.

The story is remarkable, when we consider that the HeLa cells have replicated themselves so many times that they could wrap the earth numerous times, still splitting sixty years after Henrietta died. We stand by  as the family comes to grips with their existence. Are they her mother or aren't they? Can they say, since her cells were shot into outer space, that their mother has been there, too?

The book wanders us into the waters of medical ethics from the 1800s to today, and begs us to consider the issues of research for the benefit of the greater population vs. personal ownership of our own cells. Should doctors and researchers be free to keep what is gathered from an operating table or an exam room and do with it whatever they wish? or should we, as patients, have the right to sell our cells to the highest bidder? Where is the line drawn?