Dolen Perkins-Valdez excels at mining the lives of nuanced, yet known, characters to convey the undying toll of slavery. Her latest novel by Ella, “Take My Hand,” is inspired by two Black sisters from Montgomery, Ala., Who in 1973 were made to undergo sterilization without their consent. Despite the relative modernness of this story’s timeline, the injustice depicted elicits as much horror as Perkins-Valdez’s first two books of her, “Wench” and “Balm,” set in the 1850s and the Reconstruction era, respectively. Still, the author’s expert rendering of this more recent atrocity blankets it in a rich portrayal of family.
Part of the propulsive power of this work is its structure of alternating perspectives, one from 1973 when its main character, Civil Townsend, has just accepted her first nursing job, and one in 2016, when Dr. Civil Townsend holds the gift of hindsight. The story begins in the latter period as Civil is preparing to inform her grown daughter, Anne, about two young sisters, Erica and India, whom she met in 1973. Despite the passage of decades without contact, these two girls have remained a fixture in Civil’s memory and an inadvertent vote in her most significant decisions. Next, the book pivots back to 1973. Civil is a nurse working with the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic wrestling with an assignment to administer potentially harmful birth control shots to these same sisters, poor, Black 13- and 11-year old children who are not even sexually active; then the unthinkable occurs. That story line is captivating in its own right, but the reader gleans from the 2016 perspective that somehow Civil’s initial, all-consuming relationship with Erica and India’s family will deteriorate. This knowledge mandates a commitment to finding out exactly what happened, how and why.
Perkins-Valdez also shines in her choice and development of characters. Civil is a young and relatively privileged Black woman—reminiscent of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie in the novel by the same name, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ Ailey in “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois”—who encounters this family down on their luck and becomes consumed with fixing them. This savior trope might have read as banal or offensive had the main character been white, but Civil’s Blackness introduces texture that stimulates and challenges the reader. Not only that, the author’s choice here passes subtle commentary on the many books that have offered this story more typically and on assimilation’s promises, limitations and curses. Likewise, the endurance of Ms. Patricia Williams, the girls’ grandmother, lifts the book to a superior level, one in line with the accumulated wisdom the older woman’s life must have garnered.
Perhaps the most notable of this book’s gifts are its deft packaging of history and its quiet nod — in the juxtaposition of timelines — to the reproductive oppression haunting Black women to this day. Like the most effective education, though, it feels that the information is streaming through the heart, awakening it and inspiring it to action.
take my hand
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
(Berkley; 368 pages; $27)