Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Comparative Review

This weekend I finished listening to ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, and in January, I finished reading ‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly. The reason I wanted to review both together and compare them was because the authors have, essentially, the same goal – to reveal to the world the untold stories of those who helped in some of the greatest achievements of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Hidden Figures looks at, as the full title reveals, the women ‘computers’ who helped in getting man into space, and putting a man on the moon; it mainly focuses on the lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Christine Darden, Mary Jackson and Katherine G. Johnson. Recently, it was made into an Oscar Nominated movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer; the movie, sadly, leaves out Christine Darden and looks only at the other three.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her cancer cells seem to be immortal. These cells were named HeLa and proved to be incredibly useful in cancer research. Her story, and her unwitting contribution remained untold for several years until Rebecca Skloot came along and made it available to everyone. An adaptation of this is underway at HBO starring Rose Byrne, Oprah Winfrey and Renee Elise Goldsberry.

What I loved about the two books was that they were told very differently and yet served the same purpose. Shatterly, for the most part, kept her self out of the narrative and gave us a look at these brilliant, amazing women and their contributions to NASA, while, Skloot was an integral part of the narrative – she introduced the characters in her book, and then it went about describing how she got the information that she received and everything she, and the Lacks family had to go through.

Including yourself in the narrative is a nice way to add a dimension of emotion and opinion to it, and helps you get more involved in the narrative. On the other hand, Hidden Figures, manages to bring out the emotion of the story pretty well, and I got engaged in the narrative nonetheless. Though, I teared up more for Hidden Figures than for Immortal Life, probably because Hidden Figures was closer to home than Immortal Life.

But I must admit, initially I was apprehensive of that fact that Immortal Life was in first person, but I loved it so much once I got into it. And the experience was enhanced by the fact that I was listening to it in the audio-book format, so it felt like the author, herself, was telling me the story, and the narrator of the audiobook, Cassandra Campbell, does a brilliant job with it! The voices are amazing, and the emotion that she brings to the narration is part of why I loved the idea of the first person narrative in audio-book format, and it was her narration that was, partly, the reason why I was so moved by the story towards the end. Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot blends non-fiction, science-writing with a true story of the lives of the people directly related to the HeLa cells seamlessly into a beautiful and touching story that is a must read for non-fiction lovers, and science writing aficionados.

Hidden Figures gives us a  – mostly -objective viewpoint and presents all the facts to us, and yet it doesn’t fail in bringing out the emotion, and the struggle and their achievements. The writing was brilliant, clear and simple, and I loved the way she told the story- presenting to us, not only the lives of these brilliant female computers, but also the evolution of the agency that was to become NASA. It starts before the Space Race, and ends with a man on the moon. I particularly loved this story because the Space Race is something I was incredibly fascinated with, and – at least to me – the achievements in the 21st century context seems, in some ways, lacking due to the absence of the race element between countries, and given the current political climate filled with Climate Change Naysayers and those who would discourage science, the competition is between companies. But still, I feel that that this is lacking. So, I honestly feel that stories like Hidden Figures need to be told and re-told to remind everyone about how we got here, and that we shouldn’t waste the effort that it took to get us till where we are right now.

As a side note, the Hidden Figures movie is brilliant and Taraji P. Henson is amazing and I love her. I can’t wait to see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO in April!


2 thoughts on “Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: A Comparative Review

    1. Oh, yeah! I’ve read her book on the science of sex, and I’ve had Grunt on my nonfiction list for this year.
      I’ve got a huge pile of Science Writing books waiting for me.

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