Cover Image: Take My Hand

Take My Hand

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Member Reviews

Journey to Alabama where the government gets deeply involved in the lives of poor, Black girls in 1972.

Do we know what is best for others? Can we help people without becoming saviors? What is an ally for the marginalized?  “Take My Hand” struggles with these questions, just as readers ponder the same issues fifty years later.

The African-American daughter of a respected Montgomery, Alabama doctor follows in her father’s footsteps. As a nurse for the women’s clinic, Civil is shocked by the squalor of her first home visit family, and astounded to learn the state is giving pre-teens birth control shots. With a young woman’s passion, Civil steps forward to right the wrongs…as she perceives them. When she crosses the unseen line of becoming too involved with this one family, her supervisor steps in and the girls suffer permanent consequences.  

Civil cannot keep quiet about what she learns and struggles against the state health care policies involving informed consent, medical drug trials, and birth control. This book is based on the 1974 Supreme Court Case (Relf v. Weinberger). As our country recently experienced the Supreme Court reversal of Roe v Wade, this book is quite timely.
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The saying goes that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, but it seems like knowledgeable and ignorant alike are equally doomed by those who are determined to turn back the clock. When headlines talk of global pandemic, wars in Europe, book banning, and voting and abortion rights, sometimes I wonder what decade we’re in—or which century.

Take My Hand, the latest novel by historical fiction author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, takes place in 1973 (with a few scenes set in 2016), but the events the book is based on still resonate today. When certain segments of the population decline vaccines because they don’t trust the federal government, it’s important to remember that they have a good reason not to. 

Click on the link below to read the rest of the review.
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What a heartbreaking book to read. Parts of this book turned my stomach I could barely read it, but at the same time, I had to read it to understand part of my white-washed history I was never taught. To read about the medical experiments that were done on children (yes I said children) was just gutting! Civil was such a compelling character to me. To see how she tried to advocate for her community and seek justice was thrilling and I was cheering her on all the way. This book was a great reminder about those that live in poverty and how being uninformed can lead to becoming a victim of those that like to oppress those that are not rich and white. 
Thank you #netgalley for the chance to read this one!
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This is a gorgeous and unfortunately, really timely book. I loved getting to know these characters and am shocked but not surprised by how much of what they went through still rings true today. This will stay with me a long time and might become one of my favorites in 2022.
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This was such an eye opening heart wrenching book that everyone should read. The story tells about a nurse who works in a clinic for women to supposedly help them with their reproductive issues. It deals with one of the terrible times that humans in America decided that men and women have the right to decide who should reproduce and who shouldn’t. Genocide in America. Yes it existed and it still does. Read this to see how it happens.
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Beautifully told and exquisitely written, this is a tale based on actual events that occurred in the post-segregation south. Civil Townsend is a nurse whose life changes forever when she is called upon to help an impoverished family with two girls. When terrible wrongs against the family are committed, Civil does everything in her power to force those responsible to suffer the consequences of their unethical actions.

The story hooked me right from the beginning and I grew very fond of Civil and the two girls. The author takes devastating true events and gives them life, breath and faces in these two young girls. It is heartbreaking how this family was taken advantage of and such an important story to be told. The author deftly achieves this with heart and poignancy. With so many topics of discussion included, this would be excellent choice for book clubs.
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Set in Montgomery, Alabama in the early 1970’s, Take My Hand follows a Black nurse working at a family planning clinic who is desperate to do the right thing, whatever that might be. Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez was inspired by the United States’ history with administering forced birth control and sterilizations, and the result is a moving and emotional account of the impact of this horrific practice.

I recently spoke with Dolen Perkins-Valdez about this book and her inspiration. This episode of Marginalia features that conversation.
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The history behind Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the actual case of the Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, ages 12 and 14, and their forced sterilization at that age. This book fictionalizes the story through the eyes of a nurse - Civil Townsend. What I really appreciate about this book is that it does not end neatly. An important book and an important conversation. 

Read my complete review at 

Reviewed for NetGalley and a publisher’s blog tour.
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“In a world inundated by information about these tragedies and more, I still passionately believe in the power the novel (and its readers!) to raise the alarm, influence hearts, and impact lives.” ~ Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez

^I can’t say it any better, so I had to quote it. Loosely inspired by actual events, Take My Hand is the powerful story of two young Black sisters who were victims of reproductive injustice, without the informed consent of their caregivers or the girls. It’s also the story of their nurse who was working at the family planning clinic at the time.

It is not ok that this ever happened to women, teenagers, young girls, women with disabilities, women who were economically disadvantaged, women in prison, women in institutional living, and to find out that it continues to happen? That leads me right back to the quote above.

I devoured this book in two days. The writing is smooth and precise; the story compelling and never loses pace. You can’t help but love India and Erica, who at first live in extreme poverty after their mother has passed away, their father and grandmother doing the best they can at the time, still grieving. Their nurse, Civil, becomes close to the family, and eventually becomes an advocate for them, finding them more secure, livable housing, a job for the father, schools for the girls, and eventually, on the path to justice when the unthinkable happens to these girls and this family. 

A thought-provoking, important, sensitively told novel everyone should read.

I received a gifted copy.
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Set in 1973 in the South. Civil Townsend has graduated nursing school and takes a job with a local family services clinic. Two of her clients were ages 11 and 13, poor, Black, rural. The government saw fit they should be surgically sterilized as part of a much larger federally funded program. To Civil's horror and disbelief, this was occurring all over the country, particularly in the South and among the poorer population. This fictional account is based on real events and a court case which went all the way to the Supreme Court, Buck vs Bell. 

Civil Townsend, now Dr. Townsend, living in the North and nearing the end of her career as a doctor, decides it's time to tell the story. There are other side stories, of friends lost and others gained. Civil learns more about her father, a doctor who cared for his Black community and put his principles - and his safety - on the line many times over.

This is a powerful story and I hope many people read it and remember that some of these events are not that long ago in the past and can, and do, still happen today.
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As I begin this review, I would like to share this quote from this heartbreaking book:

"This is your lineage, my dear daughter, your history. More powerful than blood. The story of those sisters and what happened in Montgomery in 1973 is a history you share with people you have never even met. They are your family as much as I am your family."
This fictional novel is a tragic story that is based on the Relf Sisters. Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, then 12 and 14 in 1973 in Montgomery, Alabama. The girls were involuntarily sterilized by tubal ligation at their tender ages.

The girls in this book, 13-year old Erica and 11-year-old India, were so violated that their case went as high as the federal government by means of the Montgomery, Alabama Community Action Program. Whether due to research or the "sterilization law", countless girls and women were experimented on with various forms of birth control.

This devastating book definitely led me straight to Google. The National Museum of American History states that there was a push for new developments in birth control. This led to experiments on poor girls and women of color, including Native Americans, African Americans and other minorities.

This book was instrumental with regard to helping me to learn about something similar that began in 1932 and went all the way to 1972. This was the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male or later called the Syphilis Study. The purpose of this study was to observe the effects of the the disease being untreated in nearly 400 men. Over 100 men died as a result of this cruel experiment. The experiment was promised to last six months. Instead it lasted 40 years!!

In modern times, there are certain situations where people are still involuntarily sterilized, like immigrants, some prisoners, etc. A relatable situation is the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected the African-American population and the vaccination hesitancy amongst the Black population when people are aware of these historical events surrounding the gross mistreatment of African-Americans and other minority populations. 

What a moving story and kudos to Dolen Perkins-Valdez for bringing the story to life as well as reminding us of other terrible travesties inflicted among our minority populations. Stories like these affects our pasts and as the quote that I shared above shows, it is a history we share.

Please enjoy the following YouTube video review -
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I was blown away not only by the story itself, but the storytelling abilities of the writer, including her commitment to historical research. This is an important book to read if you have surface level knowledge of forced sterilization in the United States. Excellent, heartbreaking story.
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Take My Hand was a very important book to read about parts of history that I never knew about it and sadly it wasn’t set that long ago (1970s). The writing was done very beautifully and I will definitely be acquiring this book for the library.
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Short summary - 
Inspired by true events in our nation’s history, this book tells the story of a brave black nurse, Civil, in post-segregation Alabama who seeks justice for the wrongdoing against her patients, ages 11 and 13. 

Overall review - 
Heavy, but beautiful and powerful tale of a tragedy and the fight a brave woman went through to make things right and to seek justice for those without a voice. This one moved me to tears, which doesn’t happen often for me. A testament to the power of this story. Read trigger warnings before tackling this one. This one was particularly excellent via audiobook. 

Overall rating - 5⭐️
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Take My Hand is a gem of a read! It reminds us just how important it is for these stories to be told, for them to be heard, to be acknowledged and remembered and to care; that feels crucial right now. This is why I read the books I do!!

“In order to heal, we must remember, once we remember we must acknowledge, and once we acknowledge we can take more significant action.”

Dolen Perkins-Valdez

What are some of the themes explore? Did the stories have me think deeply, challenge my thoughts, and see something different? Or learn anything new?

YES!!! It is a moving, meaningful, less-known story that explores reproductive rights and justice for black people. The story is inspired by real-life 12 and 14 years old sisters Mary Alice and Minnie Lee Relf. A federally funded family planning clinic involuntarily sterilized them in Montgomery, Alabama 1973. While this case has been well publicized, it is not well known or been written about.

Other themes of responsibility, redemption and unintentionally wounds are explored through Civil. Civil is a young privileged black woman out of nursing school and working at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. She is assigned to give birth control shots to two black Alabama sisters, 13-year-old Erica and 11-year-old India. She starts to question why the birth control shots are given to the girls and discovers they are potentially harmful.

Sense of place and time

Dolen Perkins-Valdez captures an affecting sense of place and time with the Roe v. Wade decision a few months earlier, women had the right to abortion, and the U.S. government’s Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the black males. She brings a part of the past to light. With Roe v Wade set to be overturned and reproductive rights in parts of the U.S. are being threatened and oppressed, it’s timely and relevant.

I am Canadian, and abortions are regulated similar to other healthcare procedures across Canadian provinces. Through the Canada Health Act, Canadians have a right to access sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion.

The characters:Are the characters easy to connect and relate to? Was I able to step into their shoes?

While Perkins-Valdez uses the savior trope, she writes with compassion and creates realistic characters that are easy to relate to and connect with. She creates an extraordinary, affecting character with Civil, who becomes consumed with helping the Williamses family. She becomes aware that she has unintentionally wounded the family and battles her demons for her part in the girls’ involutnating sterilization. It’s easy to step into the characters’ shoes and feel with them.

“Sometimes love can kill you, just like hate. You love too hard, and you can lose yourself in other folks’ sorrow. You hate too hard, and you know the rest of that story.” ~ Civil

“had never known that good intentions could be just as destructive as bad ones.” ~ Civil

What were some of the emotions I experienced while reading this one?

I had an array of emotions; the best thing about that was I felt them along with Civil. I felt confused and disbelief about what was happening to Erica and India and then angry that it did happen. I had all kinds of questions I needed answers to. I was rooting for Civil to find some peace with her part of what happened. I felt for the Williams family and felt their pain, and rooted for their fight. I felt sad to see how poor, uneducated black families are in the system, a system that should be there to protect them, not cause harm. I was inspired by Civil’s kindness, her willingness to help the Williams, and her decision to stand up and give a voice to the family.

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

I highly recommend reading it!!
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A timely and gripping work of historical fiction loosely inspired by the real-life groundbreaking court case of Relf v. Weinberger. In 2016 Memphis, distinguished Black doctor Civil Townsend prepares to retire. First she must journey to her hometown of Montgomery to make peace with the past and tell the truth of it to her own daughter.
In alternating timelines, Civil reveals all that unfolded in 1973, when she was a young and idealistic nurse, stepping into her first job at a reproductive clinic serving Black women in her community. She cared deeply for the girls under her care, but grew alarmed at what she was called upon to do: administer experimental and perhaps unnecessary treatments to young patients without their understanding or consent. When the unthinkable happens to one patient and she is sterilized without consent, Civil becomes involved in a landmark lawsuit. A moving story and a testament to fiction’s power to influence hearts and impact lives.
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Take My Hand is a fictional work based on actual events. In 1973, Mary Alice Relf, age fourteen, and her sister, twelve-year-old Minnie Lee, both mentally disabled, were surgically sterilized after their illiterate mother signed with an "X," mistakenly believing she was authorizing the provision to her daughters of birth control shots. It was not an isolated incident. In the 1970's, many poor women who received government assistance, particularly women of color, were coerced into agreeing to sterilization when threatened with a loss of benefits. The U.S. Congress established the Community Action Programs (CAPs) in 1964 to assist low-income households become self-sufficient. It was Alabama officials affiliated with that federal program who took the impoverished Relf girls to a doctor for Depo-Provera injections. But the drug had been banned, pending FDA approval. Nurses told the girls' mother they would be given "some shots" and convinced her to sign a consent form that she could neither read nor understand. When the truth came to light, a social worker took the girls to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed a complaint on their behalf. The ensuing litigation brought to national prominence the issue of involuntary sterilization and Senator Ted Kennedy held hearings that led to guidelines being promulgated. Ultimately, those guidelines were ruled insufficient to prevent involuntary sterilization and the federal court condemned the practice, holding that federal funds cannot be used for involuntary sterilizations and enjoining the practice of threatening women with the loss of benefits if they refused to accede. Eventually, the Department of Health and Welfare issued acceptable regulations outlining when sterilization in federally funded programs is medically appropriate and authorized. "The case is considered a pivotal moment in the history of reproductive injustice, as it brought to light the thousands of poor women of color across the country who had been sterilized under federally funded programs."  In the wake of <em>Relf v. Weinberger</em>, the concept of reproductive freedom expanded to encompass both the right to have children and the right to be free from unwanted pregnancy.

Perkins-Valdez says that when she first heard the Relf girls' story and became aware of the case, her reaction was "outrage. I couldn't believe it and wondered why more people don't know the story." Her inspiration for Take My Hand was envisioning and wondering how the spirits of the Relf girls might want her to frame their story. She commenced three years of research and "everything" that she learned surprised her. The Relf girls were sterilized just one year after the shameful, four decades-long experimentation on Black Tuskegee men with syphilis came to light and marked the culmination of decades of eugenic policy -- egregious and racist -- including a push by Margaret Sanger to control the reproductive lives of Black women. She also discovered that reproductive justice has not been achieved in post-Roe v. Wade America. For example, in 2013, it was revealed that between 2006 and 2010, approximately 150 women were involuntarily sterilized in California prisons. In Tennessee, it came to light in 2014 that prosecutors were incorporating stipulated agreements for permanent birth control into plea bargains, and a whistleblower reported in 2020 that immigrant women in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities were sterilized without consent.

Despite her extensive research, Perkins-Valdez could not find any accounts from the nurses who worked at the clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Relf girls were sterilized. So she created Civil Townsend, a nurse, to serve as the lead character and narrator of the book. Perkins-Valdez wanted to understand what it would be like to be a nurse working at a clinic where such atrocities were taking place -- how they could make sense of what was happening there and would react to such an incident occurring "on their watch." The book opens in Memphis in 2016, with a sixty-six-year-old Civil addressing her daughter, Anne, who has just graduated from college. She says she must tell the story of India and Erica as a "reminder to never forget" and to lay "ghosts to rest." Civil has learned that India is very ill and she is going to go visit her, but first wants Anne to understand how her "story is tied up with those sisters."

The action then moves back to March 1973. Civil is only twenty-two years old, and has just graduated from nursing school and begun working at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic along with two other young, new nurses, supervised by Linda Seager, a stern "white woman working in a clinic serving poor Black women." Civil is the daughter of a local doctor who wanted her to go to medical school and join his practice. But Civil is idealistic and chose to be a nurse because in the medical hierarchy they "were closer to the ground. I was going to help uplift the race, and this clinic job would be the perfect platform for it."  

Early in the book, Civil reveals that she had an abortion in the spring of 1972 -- before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Perkins-Valdez says including that event in Civil's history frightened her because she had never included such a story in any of her prior work and she was scared about readers' reactions. She had to research how Civil would locate an abortionist, where she would have the procedure, whether she would be provided with after-care, including pain medication, etc. The location she uses in the book is the site where abortions were provided illegally. But she concluded that Civil takes the job at the clinic in order to give women more reproductive freedom than she herself enjoyed. "It made sense that she would have been through that, because that part of the motivation for working at that clinic is so important to her," Perkins-Valdez notes. "She doesn't want the women to go through what she went through." The decision to include that aspect of Civil's history was the correct one because it enhances Civil's motivations. It also provides context, dimension, and emotional depth to Civil's story and, regardless of the reader's stance on abortion, makes Civil more sympathetic because she thinks about her choice, the procedure, and what might have been. She is not yet at peace with her decision or her relationship with the father, even though she tells her daughter, "There is no greater right for a woman than having a choice, Anne. I exercised that right. Fully and consciously."

Civil quickly discovers that birth control is an instrument of oppression of Black women. Clinic staff aggressively pressure them to use birth control and Depo-Provera, then an experimental drug, is being routinely given to clinic patients. At first, Civil assumes it is safe but is troubled to find out that it has not received FDA approval.

There is an outreach component to Civil's duties and early in her tenure at the clinic she is assigned an off-site case. She dreads the journey out into the country the Williams' home. "Now when I say the country, I'm talking the country country. No running water. Outhouses. Unpaved roads," she recalls. "Up close the structure was more of a wooden shanty than a cabin" with no telephone so Civil isn't sure her patients are expecting her visit. But she meets Erica, age thirteen, and her sister, India, who is mute. They live in unimaginable squalor with their widowed father, Mace, who is just thirty-three years old, and his mother, Patricia, age sixty-two. "Walking into that house changed my life," Civil relates. "And yes, it changed theirs, too. I walked right up in there with my file and bag of medicine, ready to save somebody. Little old me. Five foot five inches of know-it-all." She discovers that India is being given birth control even though she is a mere eleven years old, is not sexually active, and has not even begun menstruating. And Erica, just two years older, insists that she has never even kissed a boy and admits that she bleeds all the time, a side effect of Depo-Provera. Civil is enraged. And resolved.

From that first meeting, <em>Take My Hand</em> focuses on Civil's efforts to help the Williams family. She is young, naive, and ignores the medical protocols she was taught in nursing school, her involvement and relationship with the family members growing increasingly personal. She is determined to help them find better housing, unabashedly using resources available to her to do so, even as she recognizes that she is jeopardizing her career by not maintaining the requisite professional distance from the family. Her clinical practices are also risky. And she feels that her efforts are making a difference, but Ms. Seager will not be deterred, making the Williams sisters pawns in a dangerous game of power in which Seager asserts her will. What happens to the Williams sisters becomes "the greatest hurt of" Civil's life -- a watershed moment that impacts her, as well as the entire Williams family, and alters the trajectory of their lives and relationships.

Perkins-Valdez knew that Civil and the girls had to hail from different socio-economic classes. Indeed, college-educated Civil explains that she and her family "managed to live dignified in undignified times," and she had advantages that the Williams girls did not, even though they still fought to survive "the humiliations of the Jim Crow life." Perkins-Valdez recognized early on that she was writing a book about Black class dynamics and wanted to explore what it would be like for the two families to encounter each other. She does so skillfully, describing in detail the day-to-day details about the families' lives and letting the images of their disparate living conditions illustrate how different their experiences of living in the same small area of Alabama has been. She also expertly allows their voices to effectively make the point that the two families are living in two different Americas, neither of which is a land of freedom or equality for persons of color or the poor.

Perkins-Valdez's extensive research lends validity and depth to the powerful story, and her characters are fully developed. Perkin-Valdez relates their engrossing story with compassion and insight. Erica and India are clever, believable young women, as well as heartbreakingly sympathetic, and Mace, their father, is fascinating. He's a man searching for a way to create a better life for himself and his family who has been beaten down by a system rigged against him, the death of his beloved wife, and his own flaws. Patricia, the girls' grandmother, is wise and appropriately skeptical, but also loving and appreciative. 

Civil is a woman looking back over a period of forty-four years, evaluating her life and her choices as she stands on the cusp of retirement. She has enjoyed a successful career and flourished as a mother, but news of India's illness, along with contemplating the next phase of her life, compels her into something of an "apology tour" during which she meets with her baby's father for the first time in many years and is reunited with the Williams sisters. Civil is as objective as anyone can be about her decisions and actions all those years ago, admitting her own faults and acknowledging that her life can be divided into two parts -- before she met and after her involvement with the Williams sisters. "Now I know why I came on this trip. I needed to make my peace. Ain't nothing like peace of mind, Anne." Indeed. Perkins-Valdez's treatment of the story is evenly paced, vividly credible, and utterly heart-wrenching, inviting readers to become deeply invested in Civil's richly emotional narrative to see whether she is finally able to reconcile the past.

Valdez-Perkins says she hopes that Take My Hand "will provoke discussions about culpability in a society that still deems poor, Black, and disabled as categories unfit for motherhood." The book is both timeless and eerily timely given that the right to reproductive freedom is far from assured in the United States with the U.S. Supreme Court on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade and many states are enacting laws that restrict or completely annihilate reproductive choice. Thus, in addition to being a beautifully crafted, absorbing, and thought-provoking tale that will surely be on lists of the best historical fiction published in 2022, it is also an important book that belongs in every history classroom. Because Perkins-Valdez correctly believes that "the power of the novel (and its readers!) to raise the alarm, influence hearts, and impact lives" is tangible.
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This is important American history, much of which--when it relates to the legacy of slavery and the stain of racism-- seems to be most safely told in fiction these days. Still, I wonder how long it will be before someone decides that because of the truth in the fiction, this book deserves to be banned. But as tempting as it is to think of this book as being solely about race, it's also very much about gender and the intersection of those two with poverty and about the ways that public systems can and have done violence to those who are Black, those who are poor and to women. 

Whatever very minor issues I may have had with this book as a novel seem far too trivial to mention when compared to what it stands for--the absolute necessity of Black creatives telling our history from our perspective, even if in fictionalized accounts. The way the author humanized one family who suffered from the atrocious human rights violation of involuntary sterilization is a reminder of the thousands of others who were dehumanized and whose names we will never know.

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Perkins-Valdez based this novel on a true historical landmark in the battle for women’s rights. Civil Townsend is a young, Black nurse at a family planning clinic in Montgomery, AL in the 1970’s and she’s horrified to discover that some of her first patients (two poor, Black sisters, ages 11 and 13) have been put on birth control. Civil digs deeper into what’s going on at the clinic..and grows close to the sisters and their family in the process. I recommend not Googling to find out the details of these historical events before reading the book, as part of the appeal for me was the suspense of what was going to unfold. This story is obviously about race, but it’s also about class as Civil is an upper class Black woman and she’s stepping in to “save” a very poor family. The story also addresses the complications of helping people while still allowing them to have agency over their lives and the impact the welfare system has on recipients. The writing style is accessible and eases the consumption of this heart-breaking story. This one will certainly be one of my favorites of 2022.
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Take my hand was an emotionally impactful and compelling story. Very timely because of the attempt to overturn of roe vs wade. There are so many layers: combatting systemic oppression. The author uses dual timelines of 1973 and 2016 to tell this devastating tale. Civil Townsend, a black nurse who just graduated nursing school got a job at a family planning clinic in Alabama with all good intentions of helping women. The story highlighting both injustice and hope throughout. I highly recommending reading Take My Hand.
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