“Take My Hand” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Berkley)
Newly graduated from Tuskegee, Civil Townsend takes on her first job as a nurse at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic in 1973. She’s ready to make a difference and help the women in her community, but her very first case tests her in a way that will haunt her for decades to come.
“Take My Hand” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is engrossing from the start. The novel takes place from Civil’s retrospective look some 40 years back from 2016. Being one of the few nurses with her own reliable transportation, Civil is assigned two rural Alabama girls, India and Erica Williams, who are receiving birth control shots. From the first time Civil sees them she is appalled at their living conditions — did Black people still live in shacks behind their white employers’ houses? — but she begins to fall in love with them, compelling her to help them any way she can.
It’s only a few months after Roe v. Wade decided women have a right to abortion. It’s also one year after the public learned about the U.S. government’s “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” When Civil’s friends begin to question the birth control shot the nurses are giving to their patients, she discovers that Tuskegee was far from the end of America’s attempts to control Black bodies.
The novel explores the complex psychological impact of making decisions about reproduction or, conversely, having those decisions made for you without consent. It also examines the class separation between Black folks, which further divides and weakens a group that is already being taken advantage of. How could the Williams family trust Civil Townsend when she’s from money, and doesn’t understand or anticipate the problems they face every day? Though she’s still a step up from a white government worker, it’s only a step. She must earn their trust, then earn it again and again. But will she ever earn their forgiveness?
“Take My Hand” boasts gorgeous design and conversational prose. This being her third novel, Perkins-Valdez showcases her talent and experience through her easy command of voice, plot and pacing.
Throughout the novel, detailed descriptions command rapt attention. Between its sizable length and the immense amount of research and history poured into its more than 350 pages, “Take My Hand” is an excellent example of a Big Ambitious Novel by a 21st-century woman.
Fannie Lou Hamer, who is credited with coining the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy,” and Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” are just two among dozens of cultural references sprinkled throughout the book, adding context and emotional gravity to the novel. This is the kind of story you want to build extra time into reading so you can explore the wealth of history it draws upon.
Inspired by the real court case Wyatt v. Alderholt, “Take My Hand” is a reminder that it wasn’t just Tuskegee. There have been a long list of offenses, some of which are shockingly recent. By dropping the reader first-person into discovering one such offense, you experience the doubt and struggle of noticing something amiss, uncovering truth and finally determining how to move forward.
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