Friday, April 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a gripping, important book, but brutally difficult to read.

Civil Townsend narrates the tale in two timelines. In 2016, she is a middle-aged Black OB-GYN, looking back and trying to make sense of her life. In 1973, she is a newly-graduated nurse, determined to help people. Her first job, at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, initially seemed perfect. Knowing firsthand the importance of reproductive health, of reproductive choice, she believes in the mission: giving Black women living in poverty some control over their bodies and their futures.

Unfortunately, the clinic was not what it seemed. Early on, Civil was assigned to give birth control shots to two sisters – hormone treatments that had not been FDA-approved. Worse, the sisters were 11 and 13 years old and were not sexually active. The opinion of the head of the clinic, a white woman who saw herself as a do-gooder, was that if they weren’t yet, they soon would be, based on their race.

Civil is appalled by their living conditions. She inserts herself into their lives, finds them government housing, supplements their food stamps, buys them clothes, even teaches their father to read. Her intentions are good. But...

The sisters are essentially abducted from their home by the clinic supervisor and sterilized without informed consent. 

When Civil finds out, she seeks justice for the girls. With the help of a family friend, the other clinic nurses, and an idealistic young white lawyer, a lawsuit is filed against the clinic. However, as they uncover information about the scope of the government’s forced sterilization project, the lawyer takes on the Federal government instead. Tens of thousands of women of color were forcibly sterilized.

The novel dramatizes these events in a horrifying fashion. Yet there is nuance to the story. Civil, too, realizes that she steps across boundaries she shouldn’t in her eagerness to help.

There is a lot to absorb in this novel. It’s based on true historical events. Because the history is so recent, it’s raw and difficult to take in. Difficult too are comparisons with ongoing efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive health and to deny women bodily autonomy.

In some ways, the book reminds me of The Illness Lesson, another novel where young women were exploited and used as guinea pigs. So much trauma.

Even though it’s difficult to read, Take My Hand is not to be missed.

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