portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
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What is the form of orginization used in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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The form of organisation used in this powerful non-fiction work is the use of an interrupted linear form of narrative as Skloot describes her efforts to find out more about the life of Henrietta Lacks and as a result gets to know the Lacks family more and more. However, interspersing these efforts are historical accounts relevent to the story of Henrietta Lacks and how HeLa cells were used and what have been done with them since. The account therefore ranges back and forth in time, firstly focusing on Henrietta and her diagnosis and illness, then going back to her early life, before looking at the lives of the scientists and cancer research at various points in history. Skloot is obviously aware of the way that her work uses flashbacks and focuses on different characters very freely because the beginning of each chapter has a timeline that helps the reader orientate themselves to the current time frame under discussion. For example, the opening chapter starts in 1951, which is when Henrietta goes to see the doctor about her tumour for the first time. The second chapter, which focuses on Henrietta's birth and early life, is situated on the timeline as occurring between 1920 and 1942, as indicated by the opening line of this chapter:

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 18, 1920.

Such authorial comments again help reinforce which time the current chapter is set in and are designed to guide the reader through what could have been a confusing mix of different time periods and locations. The organisation of the book therefore allows Skloot to focus on a twin narrative: the story of HeLa and the woman behind it but also her own journey in gaining this knowledge.

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