HISTORY REPEATS WHAT WE DON’T REMEMBER . . .
Montgomery, Alabama. 1973. Fresh out of nursing school, Civil Townsend has big plans to make a difference in her community. At the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, she intends to help women make their own choices for their lives and bodies.
But when her first week on the job takes her down a dusty country road to a tumbledown cabin, she’s surprised to find that her new patients are just eleven and thirteen years old. Neither of the Williams sisters has even kissed a boy, but they are poor and Black, and for those handling their welfare benefits, that’s reason enough to have the girls on birth control. As Civil grapples with her new responsibilities, she takes India and Erica into her heart and comes to care for their family as though they were her own. But one day she arrives at their door to discover the unthinkable has happened, and nothing will ever be the same.
Inspired by true events and a shocking chapter of American history, Take My Hand is a novel that will open your eyes and break your heart. An unforgettable story about love and courage, sisterhood and solidarity, it is also a timely and hopeful reminder that it only takes one person to change the world.
My thoughts: this is a very timely book, set in the year Roe v. Wade entered the statute books, it covers issues around reproductive rights, and especially the forced sterilisation of young African American girls – something that really happened. Indeed it’s inspired by the real case of two young sisters who were permanently sterilised without consent.
Newly qualified as a nurse, Civil Townsend is the middle class daughter of a doctor and an artist, raised in a well to do neighbourhood. She isn’t fully prepared for the shocking depths of poverty poor Black people are living in when she meets the Williams family. In a leaking shack with a dirt floor the family live in one room full of squalor. She wants to help them, but struggles against Mace Williams’ pride to do so.
Sent out to do a single job – give Erica and India their birth control injections, she is stunned by their young ages and the fact that India isn’t even menstruating yet. Neither are sexually active, or even know any boys, but that doesn’t matter to the clinic or its manager. Civil becomes deeply involved with the family, helping them find a new home, a job for Mace, schools for the girls. Far beyond the scope of her role.
What unfolds is a terrible tale of government abuse of poor and vulnerable people. With forms thrust at people who can’t read, women manipulated into agreeing to sterilisation during labour and other heinous miscarriages of medical justice. As the case goes to court, Civil worries that the Williams girls will be lost in amongst the growing horrors.
She relates this story to her adopted daughter while undertaking a return to Alabama, ostensibly to visit the grown Erica and India, but more like a farewell tour, revisiting her memories and the people she once knew. She wants to pass on all that she learnt, explain how her guilt and culpability influenced her later decisions – to adopt and to become a doctor.
The book is powerful and shocking, thousands of women, mainly from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds were mistreated and forcibly sterilised. Sadly there is evidence that this cruel policy hasn’t stopped. Many of the victims didn’t even know what was really being done to them. This book brings the reality of medical abuse to light. And as Roe v. Wade is under threat once again in the US, it feels like a book everyone should.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own