Review: Take my Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Well this couldn’t have been published at a more appropriate time. As I write, the current clampdown on reproductive freedom in the US is getting more and more extreme; there are ongoing race relations issues all across the world and discussions about how we tell the stories of past atrocities are still being hotly debated; and in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, we see the low vaccine take up in some societies as a result of the appalling history of state funded medical experimentation, and in many cases forced sterilisation, resulting in a huge lack of trust in the state’s medical solutions.

All of this makes Take My Hand a topical read, but luckily it is also an engrossing read. The book is based on a true story and sometimes wears its research and sense of moral outrage very clunkily, though I guess this is forgivable and understandable.

Civil Townsend is a nurse, freshly qualified, in 1970s Montgomery, Alabama. At the sexual health clinic where she works, she is asked to give shots of birth control medicine to poor black women in the local area, including two young girls Erica and her mute sister India. The girls live in a shack on a farm with their father, who has just lost his job, and their widowed grandmother. Civil’s discovery that the drug she administers may not be safe leads to a tragic series of events that change all their lives. Years later, Civil reappears to try and give personal testimony, explain to her daughter and to find forgiveness and understanding for the part she played.

Civil also has a secret. She has recently aborted a baby, conceived with a childhood friend who helps her find out more about the drug and who wants to be more obviously involved with her. The difference between Civil’s choice and the fate of the two girls who have no agency over their lives are made clear but without really labouring the point which I liked.

Civil’s increasing involvement with the two girls and their family is portrayed as trying to rectify in many ways the problems she has, including perhaps a slight regret about not knowing the child she has just got rid of, but also to deal with her own family who are ambitious for her but not always as warm and loving as perhaps she needed.

I thought Civil was very well written, indignant and loving, making mistakes and blundering at times, very realistic. I would have liked to have read more about her wider family and friends, who at times were not as strongly written as they could have been. There was also a sub-plot about her mother’s depression which didn’t quite work for me and which I would have liked to see resolved with more information.

The parts of the novel that were set in the present, when Civil returns, were not entirely successful and I think may have been helped if there had been stronger characterisation – we would have cared more about her quest to return to Montgomery to find out what happened next.

In some places, I think the author was trying to say that this wasn’t a necessarily black and white, good versus evil debate, but to try and see why some people carried out appalling acts from a sense of trying to do good. The scene where Civil meets the daughter of the head of the clinic years later hinted at something very powerful about the motives and repercussions but never quite went all the way.

Having said all that, I still very much enjoyed the book. It was a good read and a powerful way to tell a story about a period in history which I don’t think is widely known. It shines a light on the many places in society where we don’t have agency, to stand up for ourselves or to challenge people in authority when they say they want to help. It deserves to do well.

Take My Hand is published by Hachette on 12 May at £14.99. My thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the early review copy.

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