Review: Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – AFTER THE LAST PAGE
- Dolen Perkins-Valdez
- 359 pages
- 2022 release
- Historical Fiction
- Alabama 1973
- Forced sterilization
Inspired by true events, Take My Hand is the story of Civil Townsend, a young woman working for a family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1970s. Shortly after receiving her nursing degree, Civil goes to work for a local clinic, which specializes in reaching the impoverished women in the community. Civil comes from a middle-class background and she is often shocked by the conditions of her home visits. She has big plans to make a difference, but when Civil is given the case of 11- and 13-year-old India and Erica, she is shocked to learn that she is required to inject them with a birth control drug that has not been regulated by the FDA.
Stuck between her ethics as a nurse and keeping her hard-to-find job at the clinic, Civil begins a journey to help the Williams sisters to receive better welfare and government help. Hoping to better their lives, Civil is shocked when one day she arrives at the family’s apartment to find the unthinkable has happened to the girls—they have been sterilized without their consent.
“I had not expected to feel so connected to this story—I had picked it up for the sake of understanding racial inequities. Yet, race ends up playing an even smaller role than poverty in this novel, and my past connections with welfare helped me empathize with the Williams family, though the situation they go through is truly unthinkable.”
If you guys have been following my blog for a little bit, you know that I make a new reading goal every year. While these reading goals often include a specific number of books, they also include content goals. Last year, I completed an Instagram “reading challenge” that included books like “a novel with a color in the title.” When I finished up my goal towards the end of the year, I was reading Lee Min-Jin’s Pachinko, which is a generational story of a Korean family surviving through the 1900s in Japanese Poverty. The book truly changed my perspective, as I had never read anything like it before.
Going into 2022, I decided to set a content role of reading more diverse stories. While I love a good romance, I often go for characters that I see myself in. That often means reading within my race, gender, and class. While reading for entertainment is better than not reading at all, I hope to read to become a better-educated individual and that includes understanding diverse perspectives.
When I read the synopsis of Take My Hand, I knew it was a story I wanted to read—I had never read anything like it. Even after reading this book, I can confirm that I have never read anything like this, and maybe I never will again. While this novel is based on real events, I had never heard of this particular problem before. In the book, Civil treats two young girls who are forced into taking birth control by the local family planning clinic.
Those that live on the poverty line know how much the welfare system plays into daily life. There are extreme limits to welfare, which is designed to only help people in a way that makes them desire to leave the system all together. The problem? So many people on welfare can never escape poverty, and the system is created by those that have never lived a day in their life poor.
As someone who has relied on welfare, this story was very close to my heart. I have personally experienced some of the limitations of welfare and the negative perspectives other people have about it, should they learn an individual is relying on the system. This book strongly embodies this theory, as some of the main characters categorize the William family within these negative tropes, particularly the clinic operator, Mrs. Seager.
Linda Seager is possibly the most controversial character in this book, as she makes the decisions at the clinic. Seager chooses to put the girls on birth control, though India is too young to menstruate and neither girl is near old enough to be around boys. Yet, Seager is convinced that because of their race and class, they will become pregnant at a young age, regardless. When she learns that Civil has been investigating the birth control drugs and she is hesitant to give the girls their shots, Seager quickly takes actions and sterilizes the girls, taking advantage of the fact that the Williams family has not learned to read.
I had not expected to feel so connected to this story—I had picked it up for the sake of understanding racial inequities. Yet, race ends up playing an even smaller role than poverty in this novel, and my past connections with welfare helped me empathize with the Williams family, though the situation they go through is truly unthinkable.
Civil’s character grew up much like my own. She comes from a middle-class family that doesn’t worry as much about money as some other families in their area do. As Civil goes out into the world on her own, she begins to experience things that her family has been sheltered from. Much like Civil, most young adults experience this. Civil goes into her new job hoping to “change the world,” so to speak, but she learns some difficult lessons. I felt that because of this, Civil’s character was extremely realistic—her perspective is so similar to many others graduating from college and entering the workforce, even at present.
There were a lot of things that spoke to me with this novel. I enjoyed reading from Civil’s perspective and I was enamored by the story of the Williams girls. That being said, I didn’t love the “present-day” aspect of Civil. We never really understand much about what she is doing in the present, only how she got this way. I suspect the author weaves in this narrative so that the reader can see how Civil was affected by the Williams family case. Yet, as Civil’s story changes, I didn’t feel connected to her. Instead, I found myself browsing through these chapters hoping to get back to the story.
Another thing I didn’t quite understand? Anne’s character. Anne is supposedly Civil’s adopted daughter. I believe the narrative is supposed to be Civil telling the story to her daughter, but Anne is not truly present for any parts of the novel. We never get to see or understand her character as anything but a listener. There are very little details about her at all, which leads me to wonder why the author included her in Civil’s story as she did. At the very beginning of the novel (Chapter one), we receive a few details about Anne, such as an ominous note about her parentage, and I had hoped that her story would be revealed later on. Yet, it never is.
Beyond Anne’s character, I didn’t find peace with Civil’s “present” story because we don’t truly understand her motives for looking to “find peace” now. At one point one of the characters asks if she is dying, and she claims she is not, but I wonder why it took her until she was as old as she is in the present to revisit her hometown. She claims to have kept in touch with several of the other characters, so why would she go back for a visit now? What has changed? These are questions that I never felt I received the answer to, which bothered me.
Overall, I did really enjoy this book. There is SO MUCH to be learned from this story, especially for those that have never been touched by the welfare system. While I was expecting this book to be racially charged, I found so many inequities in classism instead. We often see Black historical fiction as race-inspired, so I thought it was refreshing to look at this story from a different perspective. While race does play an important part in the story, it’s not the main thing to be gleamed from this plotline.
While the plot in this book is a heavy one, it is a story that so many could benefit from reading. Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, it’s hard not to get swept up into Civil’s story and the familial bond she feels with the Williams sisters. For these reasons, this book has certainly been added to my favorites list for this year.