Lifting heavy loads. But Perkins-Valdez uses her invaluable skill of weaving memory with facts to immerse readers in the final stages of the civil rights movement through the intertwining stories of 23-year-old Civil Townsend – an enthusiastic new nurse working in a family. planning clinic and the slightly bubbly daughter of a doctor and complicated artist from Montgomery, Ala. – and his first patients, India and Erica Williams, poor rural black girls aged 11 and 13. India, who hasn’t even gotten her period yet, and her sister are secretly surgically sterilized under Civil’s watch.
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In a perfectly orchestrated symphony of specificity, nuance, history and Jim Crow memory, Perkins-Valdez brings back the events and images of Montgomery 1973 whistling like an unscheduled train rushing past a platform. As always, the author clearly spent a lot of time researching to ensure depth and accuracy. Perkins-Valdez paints Montgomery with strokes so rich you can feel the story breathing down your neck through the sounds of ice cream trucks in the summer, the drawl of a Southern judge, and Booker T. and the MGs on the record player. Roe vs. Wade was only a few months old and the legacy of the mid-1950s bus boycotts seemed more relevant than ever.
Not all readers will recognize the polished details, but those who do will feel rewarded to finally see a book that centers their experience. And in a novel that’s steeped in the stew and issues of womanhood, Perkins-Valdez manages to bring even the male characters on point. For example, the girls’ country father, Mace, is a portrait rarely seen in literature: a man of color who is uneducated and illiterate but knowledgeable, sexy, smelly, broken.
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By exploring uncharted events involving Black American women, Perkins-Valdez gives us a fuller and richer view of our nation’s history while reminding readers that the bodies and futures of Black girls have never been protected in the American experience.
As Civil tries to figure out all that happened to the girls, she encounters a similar story from Miss Pope, a brusque but beloved librarian at Tuskegee University. She recounts her closeness to the story, reported a year earlier, of 600 African-American men in Alabama who were not treated for syphilis so that researchers could find out if black people had a particular resistance to the terrible disease.
“You worked here,” Civil said. “I don’t mean disrespect, Miss Pope, but how could you not know?”
“Baby,” Miss Pope replies plaintively, “I keep asking myself the same question. How could this have happened under my feet?”
In this exploration of good and evil, care and neglect, racism and justice, questions, guilt and regret abound.
Perkins-Valdez’s grasp of grand historical themes goes hand in hand with his attention to the lives of his characters, their existence so meticulously rendered that you can smell the fetid air of Williams’s hovel and the smell of freshly bathed and smeared girls. of cocoa butter. The sweat on the back of a young lawyer’s shirt in a cool Alabama courtroom not only signals his first scare, but also the difficulty of the case, the hostility of the judge, the confidence of the government in a case that exposed how much the United States government cared about poor black girls and women in the 1970s. All of this is seen through the lens of a black nurse from her hometown, overwhelmed by her own past and her chaotic life and by the seriousness of her responsibilities towards this family she loves.
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“Take My Hand” reminds us that truly extraordinary fiction is rarely written simply to entertain. More often than not, the novelist builds the story like a house, then opens the windows, slams the doors, tears down the walls to reveal to the reader all his boards and bones laid bare beneath the surface. Perkins-Valdez has done a great job of building a structure and scaffolding that will not only last, but will also bear the brunt of future writers eager to bring the past to life for readers.
Tina McElroy Ansa, author of five novels, co-edited the collection of essays “Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community.”
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