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The history of Black America, and the impact of that history, are familiar ground for the American bestselling writer Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Her first novel, “Wench,” followed four enslaved women who were mistresses to their owners in pre-civil war Ohio. Her second, “Balm,” followed migrants seeking healing in post-civil war Chicago. Her latest novel, “Take My Hand,” continues in a similar vein, detailing horrific events and their aftermath through the story of a nurse in 1970s Alabama, and two sisters in her care who become victims of medical abuse at the hands of a federally funded agency. The novel is loosely on the lives of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Reif, aged 12 and 14, who were sterilized without consent in 1973 – a year of women’s rights and political upheaval– and resulted in Relf vs. Weinberger, a landmark legal case in Montgomery. “Take My Hand” is a stunning read, reminding us just how important it is for stories to be told, heard, acknowledged and remembered.

Civil Townsend (named by her father because, “we wanted you to be free”) is a 23-year-old black nurse, newly graduated from Tuskegee. Because she has reliable transportation, she’s immediately hired in 1973 as a nurse at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic whose “mission” is to help disadvantaged black women the freedom of planned pregnancy. Civil has had a secretive abortion and wants “things to be different” for her patients. She’s ready to make a difference and help the women in her community, but her very first case challenges her in a way that will haunt her for decades to come.

The novel takes place from Civil’s retrospective look some 40 years back from 2016 when Civil is assigned two sisters, India and Erica Williams, just 11 and 13 years old. They live with their widowed father and grandmother. Civil’s role is to inject the youngsters with a drug, Depo-Provera, that will prevent them from becoming pregnant. From the first time Civil sees the girls she is horrified at their living conditions – did Black people still live in shacks behind their white employers’ houses? Civil falls in love with the young sisters, and feels compelled to help them any way she can.

Civil does her job, but after having administered the shots she learns that neither girl has had her first period or has even kissed a boy yet. So why are they receiving birth-control shots? Civil discovers that there are questions about the safety of the shots, which had been found to cause cancer in test animals. She starts looking into what might be done about this. She refuses to administer any more shots, and realizes that Tuskegee was far from the end of America’s attempts to control Black bodies.

It’s only a few months after Roe vs. Wade decided women have a right to an abortion. It’s also one year after the public learned about the U.S. government’s Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Management at Civil’s clinic makes the decision that the girls, despite their youth, are candidates for forced sterilization. The events that unfold are shocking and heartbreaking, all the more so because it is still happening throughout the world.

The novel handles a large story with ease, thanks to the author’s outstanding writing ability. Civil’s viewpoint is an ideal one from which to explore class dynamics and power. The daughter of a doctor, from a family for whom education is a “shield against the kind of disdain that does not have the capacity to even conceive of black intellect,” Civil’s challenge lies in coming to terms with her own blind spots and biases. She goes above and beyond to protect the family in her care, but although she is well aware of the “white savior story,” she is blind to the idea that her attempts to help this family might be unwise and damaging.

The book looks at the complicated psychological impact of making decisions about reproduction or, on the other hand, having those decisions made for you without consent. It also examines the class separation between Black folks, which further divides and weakens a group that is already disadvantaged. How could the Williams family trust Civil when she’s from money, and doesn’t understand the problems they face every day? She must earn their trust, over and over again, but will she ever earn their forgiveness?

Alternating between present-tense sections in 2016, as Civil embarks on a journey of atonement back to Montgomery, and past-tense sections in 1973, as the story of these girls and the wrong done to them unfolds, there’s a feeling of finality hanging over everything – we always know that what is done cannot be undone. It also reinforces one of the book’s main theses: that the past will continue to exert its power over the present, even after supposed change has occurred, and especially if we attempt to forget it.

Fannie Lou Hamer, who is credited with coining the phrase “Mississippi appendectomy,” (an unwanted, unrequested and unwarranted hysterectomy given to poor and unsuspecting Black women) and Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power are just two among dozens of cultural references scattered throughout the book, adding background and emotional enormity to the novel. This is the kind of story that makes readers want to explore the wealth of history it draws upon.

“Take My Hand” is a book about choice, freedom, forgiveness, that pulls threads of history together. The case of hundreds of Black men in rural Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis in a federally funded study, for example, provides a moral touching point as Civil tries to understand what’s going on under her nose. The reader, too, feels compelled to question the ways in which present-day institutions might be failing, or doing wrong by people. The book is also a love story that demonstrates how small acts of courage can change the world, and as with all good historical fiction, it speaks to the now.

(P.S. If you’re looking for an excellent book club choice, “Take My Hand” could provide hours of discussion.)