Take my hand off the Dolen Perkins-Valdez book review

“Take My Hand,” the novelist and professor Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s recent journey into historical fiction, is a jewel of a book, but not easy to read. The author of the bestselling “Wench” and “Balm” (2015) from 2010 was inspired by the groundbreaking prosecution of the former US Department of Health, Education and Welfare after failing to protect thousands of poor, black and mentally challenged girls and women from surgical sterilization without their consent.

Heavy lifts. But Perkins-Valdez uses his invaluable talent to intertwine the memory with facts to take readers deep into the late stages of the civil rights movement through the intertwined stories of the 23-year-old Civil Townsend – a new, skilled nurse working in a family planning clinic and the little bougie daughter of a doctor and a complicated artist from Montgomery, Ala. – and her first patients, India and Erica Williams, poor black girls in the countryside who are 11 and 13. India, who is not even menstruating yet, and her sister are secretly surgically sterilized under Civil Guard.

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In a perfectly orchestrated symphony of specificity, nuances, Jim Crow’s history and memory, Perkins-Valdez brings the events and images of Montgomery 1973 whizzing back like an unplanned train whizzing past a platform. As always, the author has obviously spent a lot of time researching to ensure depth and accuracy. Perkins-Valdez paints Montgomery in such full strokes that you can feel the story pulling you down your neck through the sound of ice cars in the summer, a Southern judge’s tease and the Booker T. and the MGs on the turntable. Roe v. Wade was only months old, and the legacy of the mid-1950s bus boycott felt as relevant as ever.

Not all readers will recognize the meticulous details, but those who do will feel rewarded for finally seeing a book that centers their experience. And in a novel permeated by the stew and the questions of femininity, Perkins-Valdez manages to get even the male characters on the field. For example, the girls’ country father, Mace, is a portrayal rarely seen in literature: a colored man who is uneducated and illiterate, but knowledgeable, sexy, smelly, degraded.

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By exploring unexplored events involving black American women, Perkins-Valdez gives us a fuller and richer view of our nation’s history, while reminding readers that black girls’ bodies and futures have never been protected in the American experiment.

While Civil tries to understand everything that has happened to the girls, she encounters a similar tale from Miss Pope, a brusque but beloved librarian at Tuskegee University. She talks about her closeness to history, reported just a year earlier, about 600 African-American men in Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis so researchers could discover if blacks had particular resistance to the terrible disease.

“You worked here,” Civil says. “I do not mean any disrespect, Miss Pope, but how could you not know that?”

“Baby,” Miss Pope replies complaining, “I keep asking myself the same question. How could it happen right under my feet?”

In this exploration of right and wrong, attention and carelessness, racism and justice, there are plenty of questions, guilt and regret to go around.

Perkins-Valdez’s grip on major historical themes is matched by her attention to her characters ‘lives, their existence so carefully rendered that you can smell the stinking air from Williams’ country house and the scent of the girls freshly bathed and sprinkled with cocoa butter. The sweat on the back of a young lawyer’s shirt in a cool courtroom in Alabama signals not only his initial tremors, but also the difficulty of the case, the judge’s hostility, the government’s confidence in a case that revealed how little the U.S. government cared about poor black girls and women in the 1970s. All this is seen through the lens of a black nurse in her hometown, overwhelmed by her own past and chaotic life and the seriousness of her responsibility to this family she comes to love.

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“Take My Hand” reminds us that truly extraordinary fiction is rarely written just to entertain. More often than not, the novelist builds the story like a house, then opens windows, slams doors, tears down walls to reveal all of its boards and bones exposed just below the surface for the reader. Perkins-Valdez has done a fine job of building a structure and scaffolding that will not only endure but also carry the weight of future writers longing to bring the past to readers anew.

Tina McElroy Ansa, author of five novels, co-edited the essay collection “Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community.”

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