Book review – The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

By Gail Bishop

Gail Bishop encourages her granddaughters. Tess Louise Isley and Vivian Joan Northrup to enjoy a good book.

“A lie can be kind to you if you want it to be, if you let it. With every year that passed, it became easier to put more distance between her old life and her new one.” Ruth Tuttle should be happy. She is a young black engineer in a big firm with a Yale degree in her back pocket and a handsome, successful, and loving husband by her side. Obama has just been elected and so many hopes and dreams seem to be teetering on the cusp of completion. She and Xavier live in Chicago, which seems a long way from the small industrial town in Indiana where she was raised and her family still lives. Xavier’s push to start a family leads Ruth to think of another baby-the one she left behind before her freshman year at Yale. The one her grandmother said would ruin the dreams she had for herself as well as negate the sacrifices her grandparents made to give her a shot at a life very different from the one she came from.

The novel begins with Ruth’s return and her subsequent search for the son she left eleven years ago. All the characters are sympathetic. All suffer from inequalities perpetuated by race and/or socio-economic disadvantages. In other words, the author does not give you anyone to blame or hate. There are no villains-only victims. And, like many social problems-there are no easy answers.

Ruth’s grandmother remembers her cousin getting lynched for accidentally touching the door to the “white” restroom before realizing his mistake. She wanted her daughter to give her children “a name that would get her an interview.” She has grown up seeing great change in civil rights but the road still looks long for her grandchildren.

Midnight is a young white boy who only wants to hang out with the black children in his school (hence the nickname) and forms a connection with Ruth when she returns. He lives with his grandmother because his father is a drunk and he lives in constant fear she will send him to Louisiana because she is running out of money to care for him.

His father, Butch, appears to be your garden variety racist as he berates Midnight for hanging out with “those thugs” even though the trouble the four boys get into is generally caused by Midnight. But then you discover Butch lost his beloved wife, Hannah, and their infant daughter during delivery and the plant he had worked in for most of his adult life abruptly closed and jobs were hard to find. He talks about his good friend who is dying of cancer because he can’t afford the chemo and you realize, life is not easy for him either.

This novel has many heavy issues from overt racism to small micro-aggressions like when Ruth and Midnight are at a diner and the waitress asks Midnight if Ruth is “his babysitter” and how Xavier always wears a suit and tie even on casual Fridays so “no one messes with him.” It highlights the differences in the lives lived by people who have money and people who don’t and how these differences “…started small, like a nick in the windshield, then eventually shattered the glass.”

But it also has a great mystery as Ruth works to discover what happened to her baby and the many layers of deceit that got her where she is today. “A lifetime of lies never added up to anything good. A lifetime of doing the wrong things for the right reasons.” Everyone in this story believes they are doing the right thing for their children-it is just the means they use to get there that causes the conflicts.

I read this with a Cosmo and you should too. Combine one ounce each of vodka and cranberry juice, a half ounce of triple sec and fresh lime juice into a shaker filled with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a lime.

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