Dolen Perkins Valdez is the author of the New York Times bestseller Wench. Published in May, Take My Hand is Valdez’s latest novel. It is 1973 in Montgomery, Alabama and Civil Townsend is fresh out of nursing school. Determined to change women’s lives in her community, Civil begins working at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. Here, she hopes to help women make informed choices over their own bodies. But, Civil is shocked when her first week on the job brings her to a dilapidated cabin, where her new patients are just eleven and thirteen years old. Although neither of the Williams sisters is yet remotely interested in boys, they are poor and Black, which is enough reason for their social workers to put them on birth control. Moved by the girls, Civil comes to treat the Williams family as her own, getting them an apartment, finding the father a job, and securing the sisters adequate schooling.
Take My Hand is a horrifying and heartbreaking story that will stay with its readers for a long time. Much of the heartbreak of the novel lies in the fact that Valdez drew her inspiration from real events, namely the Relf V. Weinberger case. In 1973, sisters Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf were fourteen and twelve years old, respectively, when their illiterate mother signed an ‘X’ on a piece of paper, expecting her daughters to be taken for their birth control shots. Instead, the girls were surgically sterilised, leaving them unable to bear children. In Take My Hand, Valdez exposes this little-well-known case and the appalling healthcare experienced by many poor and minority communities. Valdez also captures the novel’s affective sense of time and place by capturing another, slightly more well-known case — The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black Men. Here, Valdez draws on the horrific way Black males were treated as lab rats, left to die without their knowledge or consent. In this sense, Valdez brings the past to light.
The novel is made even more so gripping by the exceptional and inspirational character of Civil Townsend. Civil spends her entire life trying to correct and undo the wrong done to the Williams family. Not only does she secure the family better living conditions, but she also fights for them to receive justice. In addition, Take My Hand is narrated with dual timelines, which flow together seamlessly, allowing us to see how the atrocity of what happened to the sisters continues to haunt Civil well into adulthood. This mode of storytelling also grants us an insight into Civil’s past, in particular, her abortion in college. By opening up Civil’s past to us, Valdez adds mounds of depth to her character whilst simultaneously painting a bigger picture of the issues surrounding women’s reproductive healthcare with her discussion of abortion rights in the 1970s.
Take My Hand is a thought-provoking and sensitively told novel that should be considered essential reading. With the recent overturning of Roe V. Wade, Take My Hand is especially timely and relevant.