“Take My Hand” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Berkley)
A fresh graduate from Tuskegee, Civil Townsend took her first job as a nurse at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic in 1973. She was ready to make a difference and help women in her community, but her very first case tested her in a way which haunted her for decades.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s “Take My Hand” is captivating from the start. The novel is set from Civil’s retrospective about 40 years ago from 2016. Being one of the few nurses with her own reliable means of transportation, Civil is assigned two rural Alabama girls , India and Erica Williams, who receive contraceptive injections. From the first time Civil sees them, she is appalled by their living conditions – did black people still live in shacks behind the homes of their white employers? – but she begins to fall in love with them, forcing her to help them in any way she can.
It was only a few months after Roe v. Wade decided that women had the right to abortion. It’s also a year after the public learned about the US government’s “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Men.” When Civil’s friends begin to question the birth control vaccine nurses administer to their patients, she discovers that Tuskegee was far from the end of American attempts to control black bodies.
The novel explores the complex psychological impact of making reproductive decisions or, conversely, having those decisions made for you without consent. It also examines the class separation between black people, which further divides and weakens a group that is already being taken advantage of. How could the Williams family trust Civil Townsend when they have no money and don’t understand or anticipate the issues they face on a daily basis? Although she is still a step up from a white government employee, it is only a step up. She has to earn their trust and then earn it again and again. But will she ever earn their forgiveness?
“Take My Hand” features beautiful design and conversational prose. This being her third novel, Perkins-Valdez showcases her talent and experience with her easy command of voice, plot and rhythm.
Throughout the novel, detailed descriptions command attention. Between its considerable 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 great, ambitious novel by a 21st century woman.
Fannie Lou Hamer, credited with coining the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy,” and Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” are just two of dozens of cultural references scattered throughout the book, adding context and emotional gravity to the novel. It’s the kind of story you want to spend more time reading so you can explore the richness of the story behind it.
Inspired by the actual Wyatt v. Alderholt court case, “Take My Hand” is a reminder that it wasn’t just Tuskegee. There has been a long list of breaches, some of which are surprisingly recent. Dropping the first-person reader into uncovering such an offense, you encounter the doubt and struggle to notice something wrong, uncover the truth, and finally figure out how to move forward.