A mother searches for the child she gave up as a teen in ‘The Kindest Lie’

Nancy Johnson’s debut novel “The Kindest Lie” is a well-crafted exploration of class, race, and culture; of motherhood; and of family ties. 

HarperCollins Publishers
“The Kindest Lie” by Nancy Johnson, William Morrow, 336 pp.

It’s the night of Barack Obama’s 2012 election, and Ruth Tuttle is ready to celebrate. As a successful Black professional – she’s a Yale-educated chemical engineer married to a handsome marketing executive – who lives in Chicago’s South Side, toasting Obama’s ascension to the U.S. presidency feels like “state-sanctioned permission to dream.”

But her husband Xavier’s dreams have moved from professional and social accomplishments to personal goals. He thinks it’s time to begin having children, and he doesn’t understand Ruth’s resistance to that idea.

Readers know the answer from the very first page of Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, “The Kindest Lie.” Ruth became an unwed mother at 17, and feels tremendous guilt because she gave the baby up for adoption in her rural hometown. Her family made enormous sacrifices to help her escape fictional Ganton, Indiana, “a town that killed dreams before they took root.” And until now, Ruth has avoided acknowledging that she made sacrifices, too.

Ruth’s eventual decision to face her past sets up Johnson’s graceful, well-crafted exploration of class, race, and culture; of motherhood; and of family ties. Johnson’s memorable characters are forced into uncomfortable situations that feel vital to understand in a divided America.

The book is initially set in Ruth’s adult world – a “bougie” existence in an upscale townhouse, with a Lexus in the garage and a plethora of well-connected colleagues and friends. Still, even among those symbols of success, Ruth is ever-conscious of the need to perform at higher levels than her white counterparts. She has her lab coat dry-cleaned weekly, for example, as an external sign of her impeccable standards. She knows her accomplishments as an engineer have implications beyond her own bank account; her career is a road map for other people of color, Johnson writes, “an unwritten, unspoken exclamation point for anyone who doubted they could dominate in the sciences.”

Race isn’t the only conflict that Johnson traverses. The mounting tension between Ruth and Xavier is largely caused by the difference in their upbringings: Xavier grew up in a well-off two-parent home where high expectations were the norm, while Ruth and her brother were raised by their grandparents after their mother became addicted to drugs and left the family. Ganton, modeled after the typical industrial American town, was fueled by manufacturing, but even a job at the auto plant didn’t guarantee a comfortable life. Ruth’s trajectory in life makes her an outlier among her childhood peer group.

Ruth’s shame and guilt about giving up her baby seems like an outsized horror – more 1950s than 1990s – but it does mirror the gnawing sorrow of her own mother’s absence, one of several parallels that Johnson draws in her rumination of parenthood.

The bulk of the novel deals with Ruth’s rush home to search for information on her long-lost child. In a mirror of rust-belt reality, she finds that Ganton has been hollowed out by the closure of the local car factory. The drug trade has made inroads into the empty spaces, and the town is filled with racism that’s both more blatant and more complex than that of Chicago. Despite the devastation, Johnson also warmly illustrates the trust and connections that can be found in a close-knit Midwestern town, with some lovely descriptions of relationships and people.

For the most part, though, the Ganton clan is worn out, sharpened by tragedy, and disinclined to pamper their prodigal daughter.

“You’re having regrets now because you don’t like what you did. You can’t live with it. But there’s no going back. I’ll tell you something else, young lady,” Ruth’s grandmother tells her. “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day.”

Part of the story is told from Ruth’s perspective, and part from the viewpoint of Midnight, a young white boy in Ganton who Ruth treats with motherly concern.

Their twin plots wind through a series of satisfying but unsurprising twists, and Johnson’s observations carry a ring of well-accepted truths, despite some frustrating narrative gaps. As Ruth searches, it’s never entirely clear what she wants in the event that she does find her child, or whether she’s rationally considering her role as a mother. And despite her anger over the fact that she was coerced into giving her baby up for adoption, there’s no real debate over whether her high school boyfriend – who never knew of the pregnancy – has a right to even learn he fathered a child.

The book’s chief mysteries are solved by the end, and Ruth feels real enough that the reader is left room to ponder what happens to her and to Midnight in the next phases of their lives.

“Sometimes leaving is the best way. The only way,” Ruth’s grandmother tells her, while recounting a brutal family story from the deep South. Thanks to Johnson’s skill as a storyteller, we can also see there are times we benefit if we can return.

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