Take My Hand, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

In the author’s note at the end of Take My Hand, Dolen Perkins-Valdez explains that the story is based on the real case of the Relf sisters of Montgomery, Alabama. She gives us a ring-side seat to an injustice that many may not have heard of through the eyes of nurse Civil Townsend. Civil takes a job at a Montgomery women’s clinic, dispensing Depo-Provera shots, among other duties, in the hopes that she will be able to make a difference in the lives of their mostly poor, mostly Black women and children. When she meets two extremely young patients living in squalor in the rural Alabama countryside, Civil starts to ask uncomfortable questions.

One of the themes of Take My Hand is the trope of “saviors” swooping into people’s lives to right wrongs and fix things so that everyone can live happily ever after. Civil herself is the first savior character we meet. She was raised by her doctor father to push back against injustices and lift others up. When she meets the Williams sisters, Civil barely pauses before she adds grooming and shopping help to the birth control shots she’s actually been assigned to give. So many things about the Williams girls shock middle-class Civil. First, they are incredibly young. One of the girls is so young she hasn’t even started menstruating yet. Then there’s the fact that the family is so poor that they have no running water or electricity, barely any clothes, and very few personal possessions. Before long, Civil works her connections to try and get the family an apartment in Montgomery and a paying job for the girls’ father. Meanwhile, Civil learns that Depo-Provera hasn’t been approved by the FDA, and that there are concerns about the safety of the drug. She stops giving the girls the shot just a short time before Civil’s supervisor whisks the girls away for tubal ligation. That’s when the next savior steps in: white lawyer Lou Feldman.

Civil—both at the time and in the chapters set in 2016—wonders about her role in the Williams sisters’ lives. Should she have meddled in the girls’ health? No one asked her to. She thought she was acting in the girls’ best interests at the time. But then, so were people like Civil’s supervisor, who thought that sterilization was the best thing to do for two poor, young Black girls, one of whom is nonverbal. Ironically, Civil resents Lou’s presence, seeing him as a white savior who doesn’t care about the Williams sisters the way she does. And yet, if people like Civil and Lou don’t act, would the Williams have been able to change their situation? What are our responsibilities to each other when we see others suffering? Or when we see injustice?

Take My Hand is a fast read and offers plenty of fodder for book group discussions. I really appreciated the ethical complexity Perkins-Valdez folded into the narrative and the characterizations. She also hews closely to the sometimes unsatisfying actual history, which I also liked, because the story of the Relf sisters and others deserves to be told without being prettied up for easy consumption. This is a very good, very interesting read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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