Clover, Virginia in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

PHOTO CREDIT: Emw. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Clover’s wide, dusty Main Street was full of Model A’s, and wagons pulled by mules and horses. Old Man Snow had the first tractor in town, and he drove it to the store like it was a car – newspaper tucked under his arm, his hounds Cadillac and Dan baying beside him. Main Street had a movie theater, bank, jewelry store, doctor’s office, hardware store, and several churches. When the weather was good, white men with suspenders, top hats, and long cigars – everyone from mayor to doctor to undertaker – stood along Main Street sipping whiskey from juice bottles, talking, or playing checkers on the wooden barrel in front of the pharmacy. Their wives gossiped at the general store as their babies slept in a row on the counter, heads resting on long bodies of fabric.”1

When Henrietta Lacks was growing up in Clover, Virginia, she had no idea that one day her cells would become the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. Her cells would go on to help develop the polio vaccine, and have since been used in cancer and AIDS research, among numerous other scientific pursuits. When she was four years old, Henrietta moved with her family to Clover after her mother died. Her father could not handle all ten children by himself, so he divided them among the family that was living there working the tobacco farms. She worked on the farms until she was twenty-one, when she moved with her husband and children to Baltimore.

Henrietta developed cervical cancer and died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Before she died, doctors took a sample of cells, which would then become the famous HeLa cell line. Henrietta’s identity remained anonymous for nearly two decades. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, science writer Rebecca Skloot interviews the Lacks family and goes back through years of research and medical records to try to get an understanding of the woman behind the cells.

Clover was an incorporated town for over a century until 1998, when it reverted to unincorporated status. Skloot writes about returning to Clover in 2009 to find Main Street completely obliterated: the old movie theater, the grocery, the clothing store—all gone. For decades after her death, the grave of Henrietta Lacks in Clover was unmarked, but after Immortal Life was released in 2010, Dr. Ronald Patillo of the Morehouse School of Medicine donated a gravestone.

After Immortal Life was released, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films acquired the rights to the book and is currently developing a film adaptation for HBO; however, no release date has been given for the project.

Read more about Henrietta Lacks and Clover, Virginia on Wikipedia. Find The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at a local library or on Amazon.

1Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010. 22. Print.

Krista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She is also the assistant editor for a Bay Area-based literary journal, The East Bay Review (www.theeastbayreview.com).

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