The Kindest Lie
By Nancy Johnson
William Morrow: Feb. 2, 2021
319 pages, $26.99
It’s late 2008 and Barack Obama has just been elected president. For a young Black professional like 29-year-old Ruth Tuttle, the future looks bright. A graduate of Yale who works as a consumer products testing engineer in Chicago, Ruth is married to Xavier, a PepsiCo marketing executive who adores her and is excited about starting a family.
But instead of looking forward, Ruth is drawn back into her past – a past she has kept secret for 12 years. As a high school senior about to leave her tiny Indiana town for the Ivy League, she became pregnant. Her grandmother, who has raised Ruth since her drug addicted mother abandoned her, convinces her to give up her baby boy for adoption so she can create a new life for herself at Yale.
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Just before Christmas, Ruth finally reveals her secret to Xavier, who is upset that she didn’t trust him enough to tell him earlier in their relationship. This bombshell creates a rift that sends Ruth back to Ganton in search of answers . . . and herself. Before she can become a mother again, Ruth needs to sort out exactly what her teenage motherhood means: What are her obligations to her son, wherever he is? Has she just abandoned him the way her mother disappeared from Ruth’s life? What does she owe her grandmother, who sacrificed so much to support her academic career and a future far beyond the narrow confines of working class Ganton?
Her humble hometown has fallen on even harder times. The main industrial employer shut down its factory, sending many local men into unemployment and self-doubt that is fracturing families and futures. Although Ganton is racially divided, both geographically and socially, the economic hardship has hit everyone. We see this through her grandmother’s good friend Lena, who is white. She is trying to keep her small shop, This ‘n’ That, open. There is tension between Lena’s son Butch and Ruth’s older brother Eli. Both have lost their jobs at the factory and are struggling financially and emotionally. But there is something unspoken there as well. We see the town’s divisions represented by their inability to get along, which has affected both families.
The core of The Kindest Lie is Ruth’s preoccupation with learning what happened to her son. In searching for information about him from Mama and Eli, she discovers that the story she’s told herself for a decade is incomplete. Surprisingly, for someone so well educated, she fails to think seriously about what will happen if she finds her son. Will she initiate contact? What about his parents? Does he even know he was adopted? Ruth’s self-absorbed single-mindedness adds a layer of complexity to an otherwise sympathetic character.
The two plot strands tie together through the character of Midnight, Lena’s young grandson, who is living with her since his mother is dead and his father, Butch, either neglects or abuses him. He takes a liking to Ruth when she shows some curiosity about him and concern for his circumstances. Midnight, whose real name is Patrick, has been bullied at school for, among other reasons, having Black friends. We see the way he and his friends are treated by some of the town’s white residents when they go into stores or just hang out. The developing relationship between the needy but wary Midnight and Ruth is one of the pleasures of The Kindest Lie. Each fills a void in the other.
While it may seem like I’ve given away the entire story, this is really just the foundation of the novel’s many mysteries and conflicts. Suffice to say there is far more to everyone than it first appears. As in life, everything is more complex than we’d like to believe.
Similarly, race doesn’t always play out as one might expect, as both white and Black residents of Ganton are suffering from their town’s economic downturn following the 2007 market crash. In fact, with Obama’s recent election, the Black characters are more optimistic about their future.
Ruth’s Christmas visit to her hometown leads her down paths she hasn’t taken in a decade, revisiting people and events she has mostly ignored since she went away to college and settled into her upper middle-class lifestyle in downtown Chicago. She realizes she has been distant from her people and parts of herself for too long.
The Kindest Lie skillfully examines the cost to Ruth and her family of achieving her American Dream. She has been lied to — and she has lied to herself — about her past. In sorting out what really happened and why, she struggles to find enough peace of mind to create a future with some kind of happiness.