The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Take My Hand’ exposes a dark episode in American history

4 min

“Take My Hand,” the latest journey by novelist and professor Dolen Perkins-Valdez into historical fiction, is a jewel of a book but not an easy one to read. The author of the 2010 bestseller “Wench” and “Balm” (2015) was inspired by the groundbreaking prosecution of the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare after it failed to protect thousands of poor, Black and mentally challenged girls and women from surgical sterilization without their consent.

Heavy lifting. But Perkins-Valdez uses her inestimable talent of braiding memory with fact to take readers deep into the late stages of the civil rights movement through the intertwining stories of 23-year-old Civil Townsend — a new, gung-ho nurse working at a family planning clinic and the slightly bougie daughter of a doctor and a complicated artist from Montgomery, Ala. — and her first patients, India and Erica Williams, poor rural Black girls who are 11 and 13. India, not even menstruating yet, and her sister are secretly surgically sterilized under Civil’s watch.

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In a perfectly orchestrated symphony of specificity, nuance, Jim Crow history and memory, Perkins-Valdez brings the events and images of Montgomery 1973 whizzing back like an unscheduled train rushing past a platform. As always, the author has clearly spent a great deal of time researching to ensure depth and accuracy. Perkins-Valdez paints Montgomery in such rich strokes, you can feel history breathing down your neck through the sounds of ice cream trucks in summer, the drawl of a Southern judge, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s on the record player. Roe v. Wade was just months old, and the legacy of the mid-1950s bus boycotts felt as relevant as ever.

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

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In exploring unexplored events involving Black American women, Perkins-Valdez gives us a fuller, richer view of our nation’s history while also reminding readers that Black girls’ bodies and futures have never been protected in the American experiment.

As Civil tries to understand all that has happened to the girls, she encounters a similar tale from Miss Pope, a brusque but beloved librarian at Tuskegee University. She recounts her proximity to the story, reported just a year prior, of 600 African American men in Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis so researchers could discover whether Black people had special resistance to the dreadful disease.

“You worked here,” Civil says. “I don’t mean any disrespect, Miss Pope, but how could you not know?”

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

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

Perkins-Valdez’s grasp of large historical themes is matched by her attention to her characters’ lives, their existence so meticulously rendered that you can smell the fetid air of the Williams’s country hovel and the scent of the girls freshly bathed and slathered with cocoa butter. The sweat on the back of a young lawyer’s dress shirt in a cool Alabama courtroom signals not just his first-time jitters but also the difficulty of the case, the hostility of the judge, the government’s confidence in a case that exposed how little the U.S. government cared about poor Black girls and women in the 1970s. All of this is seen through the lens of a hometown Black nurse overwhelmed by her own past and chaotic life and the gravity of her responsibilities to this family she comes to love.

The true story behind Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s ‘Wench’

“Take My Hand” reminds us that truly extraordinary fiction is rarely written merely to entertain. More often, the novelist builds the story like a house, then open windows, slams doors, demolishes walls to reveal all its boards and bones laid bare right under the surface for the reader. Perkins-Valdez has done a fine job of building a structure and scaffolding that will not only endure but also bear the weight of future writers yearning to bring the past to readers afresh.

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

Take My Hand

By Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Berkley. 368 pp. $27

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