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Throughout the biographical-nonfiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author Rebecca Skloot combines various anecdotes from the Lacks family with her own personal experiences. This “knitting-together” of both past and present events allows for the accurate description of Henrietta Lack’s life, her death, the creation of the immortal HeLa cell line, and the Lacks family’s reactions to the ongoing events. Throughout the novel, Skloot’s effective use of organization, language, detail, and tone aid in the lasting rhetorical effect of this novel.
One key component to the rhetorical effect of the book is the organization. The book is divided into three main parts, each of which resemble a part of a “life-cycle” of Henrietta’s cells. The first part, Life (pg 11-86) tells about Henrietta’s life, mainly through personal anecdotes told to Skloot by the Lacks family. The second part, Death (pg 87-176) tells the story of how Gey and other scientists at his laboratory took Henrietta’s cells, and began to culture them for use in a cell line (pg 89).
The third part, Immortality (pg 177 – 310) tells the story of Henrietta’s famous cells, and the Lacks family’s discovery that Henrietta’s cells are being used for research at all the top institutes and universities throughout the world. An interesting aspect of Skloot’s work is that it is not told in the traditional chronological order. Instead, chapters such as “Lady’s on the Phone” (pg 49), which are set in the present day (and account for the writers experiences), are interspersed with chapters like “Blackness Be Spreading All Inside,” (pg 42), which is set in the past (obtained from a secondhand source).
This writing style that combines past events with those occurring in the present is a very unique organizational structure, allowing for the emphasis and connection of certain events that occurred in the present to those that occurred in the past.
Another key component that contributes to the novel’s rhetorical effect is the language that is used. Skloot explicitly states that all dialogues and passages are written in the native Southern dialect (xiii), which allows for the preservation of the words spoken by the Lacks family and others, such as the quote where Deborah says “we need your help liftin’ the BURDEN of them cells from this woman!” (pg 291) Other than the passages with dialogue or excerpts from other sources, Skloot uses simple, yet effective language to get her points across, explaining things that the audience may not know in order for readers to obtain a more accurate representation of the events in the novel. In this way, Rebecca Skloot effectively uses language, which is a large contributor to the rhetorical effect of the novel. A third main component is the details that Skloot uses throughout the passage, which contributes to the overall rhetorical effect of the novel. In the first few pages of the book, Skloot gives us a vivid description of Clover, Virginia (the town Henrietta grew up in), using phrases such as “The house stood on a hillside where wind whipped through the cracks” (pg 18-26). Skloot also uses detail to describe to the audience how Henrietta’s cells were used in medical research. She explains how HeLa cells have been sent into space, and have been used in the development of many vaccines. She also explains that HeLa cells were so commonplace, they could take over another cell culture (pg 138-143). In this way, with effective elaboration and use of detail, Skloot is able to contribute to the rhetorical effect of the novel.
A fourth main component of this work is the tone. Skloot writes primarily in an informative tone, seeking to inform the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family (pg 7). Skloot, a scientific journalist, effectively writes about her personal experiences, and those of the Lacks family, albeit in a slightly biased view (toward the Lacks family). Although she covers both sides of the story, she emphasizes how the Lacks family has been “cheated” out of the money from the HeLa cells (pg 191), showing her slight bias. On the other hand, she also makes sure to tell about the various research causes HeLa cells have aided worldwide (pg 141-143), implying that without the cells, society might not be as medically advanced as it is today. In this way, Skloot effectively used an unbiased tone to contribute to the rhetorical effect of the novel. Skloot’s novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is written so that many believe that “Henrietta comes fully alive on the page” (Washington Post). I believe that the major success of this work is due primarily because of the rhetorical effect of the novel, which uses organization, language, detail, and tone to effectively emphasize key points.
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