There’s nothing better than settling down to read a novel and immediately sensing that you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller. Such is the feeling from the first pages of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s illuminating third novel, Take My Hand, which was inspired by a 1973 lawsuit involving Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, 12- and 14-year-old sisters who were sterilized without consent in Montgomery, Alabama. Their horrific, groundbreaking case eventually shed light on thousands of other impoverished, primarily Black girls and women who had been sterilized across the country under federally funded programs.
Perkins-Valdez fictionalizes this injustice through the narration of Civil Townsend, a 23-year-old Black woman who begins her first nursing job at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic in 1973. Alternating between these memories and her present in 2016, Civil describes her privileged, educated upbringing in Montgomery, calling herself “five foot five inches of know-it-all.”
Civil’s boss, the clinic’s white director, assigns her to give birth control shots to 11- and 13-year-old India and Erica Williams, who live with their father and grandmother in a dirt-floor, one-room cabin. Perkins-Valdez describes Civil’s first visit to the cabin in visceral detail, as Civil fights off nausea at the stench and horror at the filth. Civil wants to help the family, who are grieving the loss of the girls’ mother to cancer and wrestling with India’s inability to speak, but she struggles with her role in overseeing the girls’ reproductive health: India and Erica aren’t sexually active, and the shots haven’t been proven to be safe.
In 2016, Civil is a doctor in Memphis on the eve of retirement, and she returns to Alabama to try to make peace with the ghosts of her past. This modern-day perspective deepens the novel, adding layers of context while contrasting young Civil’s youthful exuberance and confusion with her older, wiser, sharply honed ruminations. “I understood how a person could get so caught up in doing good that they forgot that the people they served had lives of their own,” she muses.
As reproductive rights continue to be at risk, Take My Hand could hardly be more timely. Perkins-Valdez offers an intriguing, detailed look at the way the government deals with such cases, with appearances by Senator Ted Kennedy, who establishes a committee “to investigate federal oversight of healthcare-related abuses,” and Caspar Weinberger, secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Perkins-Valdez’s fictional characters are well rounded, although hints at romance between Civil and the sisters’ father seem somewhat contrived.
With plenty to ponder and discuss, this gripping story is particularly well suited for book clubs. Take My Hand tackles a variety of issues related to race, poverty, class and women’s rights while presenting a memorable, astute examination of boundaries: moral, personal, professional and governmental. It’s a challenging, enlightening novel that will stay with readers.