Take My Hand Book Review by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Take My Hand, novelist and professor Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s latest trip into historical fiction, is a gem of a book, but not an easy one to read. The author of the 2010 bestseller “Wench” and “Balsamo” (2015) was inspired by the groundbreaking prosecution of the former US Department of Health, Education and Welfare after it failed to protect thousands of poor girls and women , black and with mental problems of surgical sterilization without their consent.

Heavy lifting. But Perkins-Valdez uses her invaluable talent for weaving memory with fact to take readers deep into the later stages of the civil rights movement through the intertwining stories of Civil Townsend, 23, a nurse new and enthusiastic working in a family. planning clinic and the daughter of a doctor and a complicated artist from Montgomery, Alabama, with a slight bougie, and her first patients, India and Erica Williams, poor rural black girls ages 11 and 13. India, who is not yet menstruating, and her sister are secretly surgically sterilized under Civil’s supervision.

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In a perfectly orchestrated symphony of Jim Crow specificity, nuance, history, and memory, Perkins-Valdez brings the events and images of Montgomery 1973 whizzing by like an untimed train rushing past a platform. As always, the author has clearly spent a lot of time researching to ensure depth and accuracy. Perkins-Valdez paints Montgomery with brushstrokes so rich you can feel the story breathing down your neck through the sounds of ice cream trucks in summer, the accent of a Southern judge, and Booker T. and MGs on the turntable. Roe vs. Wade it was only a few months old, and the legacy of the bus boycotts of the mid-1950s seemed as relevant as ever.

Not all readers will recognize the careful details, but those who do will feel rewarded to finally behold a book that centers their experience. And in a novel that is steeped in stew and issues of femininity, Perkins-Valdez manages to get even the male characters to the point. For example, the girls’ country father, Mace, is a portrait rarely seen in literature: an uneducated and illiterate but knowledgeable, sexy, smelly, broken man of color.

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Exploring uncharted events involving African-American women, Perkins-Valdez gives us a fuller and richer look at our nation’s history while reminding readers that the bodies and futures of Black girls have never been protected. in the American experiment.

As Civil tries to understand everything that has happened to the girls, he comes across a similar story from Miss Pope, a gruff but beloved librarian at Tuskegee University. She recounts her closeness to the story, reported just a year earlier, of 600 African-American men in Alabama who were not treated for syphilis so researchers could find out if black people had a special resistance to the terrible disease.

“You worked here,” Civil says. “I mean no disrespect to you, Miss Pope, but how come he doesn’t know that?”

“Baby,” Miss Pope replies plaintively, “I keep asking myself the same question. How could she be passing her right under my feet?

In this exploration of right and wrong, care and neglect, racism and justice, there are plenty of questions, guilt and regret to go around.

Perkins-Valdez’s understanding of grand historical themes is matched by her attention to the lives of her characters, their existence so meticulously rendered that you can smell the fetid air of the Williams’ country shack and the scent of freshly bathed girls and spread with cocoa butter. The sweat on the back of a young lawyer’s dress shirt in a cold Alabama courtroom indicates not only his first-time nervousness, but also the difficulty of the case, the hostility of the judge, the government’s confidence in a case that exposed how little the US government cared for poor black girls and women in the 1970s. All of this is seen through the lens of a local black nurse overwhelmed by her own past life and chaotic and the gravity of his responsibilities to this family he comes to love.

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“Take My Hand” reminds us that truly extraordinary fiction is rarely written simply to entertain. More often, the novelist builds the story like a house, then opens windows, slams doors, tears down walls to reveal all its exposed boards and bones just below the surface to the reader. Perkins-Valdez has done an excellent job of building a structure and scaffolding that will not only endure but also bear the weight of future writers who yearn to bring the past to readers anew.

Tina McElroy Ansa, author of five novels, co-edited the collection of essays “Meeting at the Table: Black Women Write on Race, Culture, and Community.”

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