In 1973 Montgomery, Alabama, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, sisters both under the age of fifteen, were sterilized without their consent. The procedure was ordered and performed by a federally funded agency. Their social worker reported it to a local attorney, who filed a lawsuit. Relf v. Weinberger brought to light the thousands of poor women of color, including minors, across the entire country who had been sterilized without consent by such federally funded programs. Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand (Berkley 2022) is loosely based on their story.
Without question, this is one of the best historical based-on-actual-events novels I’ve read. And with the recent SCOTUS leaks and the continued disparity in medical care, especially reproductive care, this novel couldn’t be timelier.
Civil Townsend is a highly educated black nurse. Her father is a doctor, and she was raised in a different world than the poor Black families living just miles away in the country. Recognizing the importance of nurses in reaching certain communities, her activism led her to the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic. She was one of eight nurses who saw patients at the clinic as well as doing house calls. Her first house call was to give 13-year-old Erica and her special needs 11-year-old sister, India, birth control shots. India had yet to start her period and neither girl had ever even kissed a boy, yet they were on birth control shots. When Civil learns that the shot hasn’t been FDA approved and there have been studies indicating the drug causes cancer in beagles and monkeys, she stops giving them the shot. She lies on the records and says they’re on the pill.
When the supervisor, a white woman, learns of Civil’s deception, she orders that the girls be sterilized. She takes a Black nurse to the home, tells the family she’s taking them to the hospital for their shots, and has Mace, the girl’s father, and his mother make their marks on the consent forms they cannot read. Civil is too late; the girls are sterilized.
What follows is a wonderfully crafted tale of the sins of the fathers and the hopes of the daughters. The legal drama aspect is captivating, especially with the treatment of the judge and his bias. The naiveté of both Civil and the young white attorney handling the case is woven so carefully and decidedly into the plot that you know, even while rooting for them, that victory will never be as sweet as they hope. The pain of the family, especially the two sisters, and Civil’s guilt makes this novel bleed and weep and scream. But there’s a light that shines.
It’s a heartbreaking, agonizing read with its title coming from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s alleged last words: “Ben, make sure you play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home”
It’s not lost on me that I’m posting this on Juneteenth.
Read this book.