Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Book Review: Take My Hand

By Jami Denison

The saying goes that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, but it seems like knowledgeable and ignorant alike are equally doomed by those who are determined to turn back the clock. When headlines talk of global pandemic, wars in Europe, book banning, and voting and abortion rights, sometimes I wonder what decade we’re in—or which century.

Take My Hand, the latest novel by historical fiction author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, takes place in 1973 (with a few scenes set in 2016), but the events the book is based on still resonate today. When certain segments of the population decline vaccines because they don’t trust the federal government, it’s important to remember that they have a good reason not to. 

In 1973 Alabama, Civil Townsend has just graduated from nursing school and is looking forward to helping Black patients at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. The daughter of the town’s Black physician, Civil is an only child whose parents wanted her to go to medical school and marry the son of their best friends. But Civil thinks nursing provides the hands-on care she wants to give, and in light of the Roe v. Wade decision, she’s eager to help women claim control of their bodies. She also had a secret abortion herself, before the procedure was legal.

But Civil’s first patients aren’t women – they are 11-year-old and 13-year-old girls. Erica and India live in a filthy shack on a farmer’s land. Their illiterate father works for the farmer; their mother is dead, and their grandmother can’t keep up with chores. Civil is tasked with giving these girls birth control shots. 

Civil is horrified by their living conditions, and stunned at the implication that the most important concern is making sure these children—one of whom can’t speak—don’t get pregnant. There aren’t even any boys around! But when Civil learns that the shot isn’t FDA-approved, she realizes something much bigger and sinister could be going on. She knows about the Tuskegee experiment that withheld syphilis treatment from Black men. Could something similar be going on with Black women and girls? 

Perkins-Valdez tackles so much in this ambitious novel, on both the plot and character levels. Civil, an enormously likeable heroine, has been sheltered by her protective father. Even growing up Black in Alabama, Civil still sees the best in people. She believes in the mission of the clinic, and worries about teenage Black girls who already have multiple children. She thinks the clinic’s White leader has Black women’s best interests at heart. She believes her own efforts to help the children can only result in good things happening for them. 

Life gives her a rude awakening. 

Civil is definitely the sun around which the novel orbits, but Perkins-Valdez’s thoughtful character work extends to the other cast members. In particular, the girls’ father could have been a stereotype, but Perkins-Valdez makes him fully three-dimensional. He’s a proud man, and his shame at not being able to protect his girls is palpable. 

The characters and the relationships are the book’s strongest offerings. Structure and plotting aren’t quite as strong, however. The book loses a sense of urgency in the second half, as legal and Congressional proceedings take over and drag at a realistic-but-not-engaging pace. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Perkins-Valdez explains she was motivated by a real court case in the 1970s (as well as more recent reports on refugee women); I wonder if a desire to stick closely to a real timeline might have been the reason for this issue.

Scenes taking place in 2016 aren’t as impactful as they could have been. An older Civil has since become a doctor; never married, but adopted a teenager out of foster care. Seeing these events happen in real time could have been satisfying for the reader, who never gets a clear explanation of these choices. While the 1970s storyline wraps up in a realistic way, it’s not a fulfilling one, either. Civil is the kind of character who deserves her rewards on the page, and she doesn’t get them there. 

Another Southerner, William Faulkner, wrote that, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Nowhere is this more true than the south, where Black people are still fighting for equal access to the voting booth and women are still fighting to control their own bodies. Take My Hand is an important work, the type of novel that could be taught in high school English classes. Because of that, in the south, it will probably be banned.  

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Dolen Perkins-Valdez:

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