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Take My Hand


Take My Hand

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the New York Times bestselling author of WENCH, is back with TAKE MY HAND, a ripped-from-the-headlines work of historical fiction set in post-segregation Alabama, where a lone Black nurse exposes a culture of racism, cruelty and abuse.

Civil Townsend has long known that she would follow in her father’s footsteps. But while he prides himself as the town’s doctor, Civil knows that it is nurses who really connect with their patients and ensure that mistakes are not made with their care. As a young woman, Civil has witnessed the passing of Roe v. Wade and has realized that she has a special interest in a woman’s right to choose.

In March 1973, only nine months after graduating from nursing school, Civil lands a job at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, a sort of early-day Planned Parenthood that helps women secure birth control, medication for sexually transmitted diseases and early pregnancy care. Although Civil is Black, her father’s profession and their relative wealth has shielded her from some of the harsher truths about post-segregation life for Black Americans. However, she is stripped of these notions when she meets her first patients.

"While reminding us of the perils of taking the hand of anyone offering something too good to be true, [Dolen Perkins-Valdez] also demonstrates that if there is one hand to the truth of history we should take, it is hers."

Erica and India live in the “country country” in a one-room shanty with their father and grandmother. Although only 13 and 11, they already have been administered the first doses of Depo-Provera, a birth control medication. Civil assumes they must be sexually active but quickly realizes that can't be true. For one, the girls reek of stale, unclean living, the kind of lifestyle that comes from extreme poverty and a certain remoteness from the rest of the world. For another, India, the younger of the two, is entirely mute. Not only are there no boys in their vicinity, they clearly would not know what to do if they saw one. So why are they already on birth control? Civil learns that the medication is not even FDA approved, as it has been shown to cause cancer in test animals.

As Civil comes to know and care for the girls --- along with their handsome father, Mace, and his mother, Patricia --- she cannot help but wonder if her forward-thinking place of employment is causing more harm than good. In the coming days, Civil realizes that her boss, Mrs. Seager (who prides herself on hiring and helping Black women), not only is aware of the issues with her clinic, including the administration of birth control to prepubescent girls, she may be entirely complicit in the harm and sterilization of much of Montgomery’s poor Black population. When Civil takes a stand for Erica and India, she blows the whistle on the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic and others like it nationwide, catching the attention of Senator Ted Kennedy and her entire community, for better and for worse.

TAKE MY HAND is narrated by an older Civil, now in her 60s and an adoptive mother to her daughter, Anne. As she returns to Montgomery for the first time to visit an adult Erica and India, she explains that “Medicine has taught me, really taught me, to accept the things I cannot change. A difficult-to-swallow serenity prayer. I’m not trying to change the past. I’m telling it in order to lay these ghosts to rest.” As she recounts the journey that took her from Montgomery and the one that brought her back, she maintains that Erica and India changed her life and that the practices she bore witness to --- and took part in --- informed not only the rest of her career, but also her ability to commit to relationships, accept herself and be Anne’s mother. This split narrative demonstrates the immense grace, courage and wisdom that is required to heal from the myriad wounds of systemic racism and reproductive injustice.

The book is a horrifying yet hauntingly poignant account of decades, if not centuries, of abuse at the hands of the American government, doctors and common citizens. As an accomplished doctor, Civil is able to look back at the most awful period of her life with clear-eyed hindsight and an emotionally resonant humility that speaks volumes to the damage done by her colleagues in 1970s Montgomery. What is perhaps most terrifying about this novel is not the dramatic reveals about the sterilization of young Black girls, but that none of it is surprising, though its nearness in history may be painful.

Perkins-Valdez does a remarkable job of tying together these two timelines while highlighting the progress made between each era --- and the shocking lack of progress as well. As a protagonist, the voice of a senior Civil is unforgettable, tinged by guilt and shame but no less intelligent and wise; her younger self is equally indelible, though for different reasons. The author is able to write a full-bodied portrait of an entire lifetime with nuance and complex layers.

Although TAKE MY HAND centers on a particularly dark moment in human history (read: white history inflicted upon Black figures), it is also about the deeply universal theme of believing that you know what is right for others, and what happens when you take that belief too far. In her keen chronicling of reproductive harm and eventual justice, Perkins-Valdez unpacks a profound and tragic moment of United States history that must not be forgotten. While reminding us of the perils of taking the hand of anyone offering something too good to be true, she also demonstrates that if there is one hand to the truth of history we should take, it is hers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 22, 2022

Take My Hand
by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

  • Publication Date: April 4, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0593337719
  • ISBN-13: 9780593337714