There are many layers to unpack in THE KINDEST LIE, Nancy’s Johnson’s haunting debut about race, class, poverty, and motherhood set against the 2008 election and the financial crisis.
Yale graduate Ruth Tuttle is a successful, Black engineer living in Chicago. Her grandmother and big brother sacrificed a great deal to propel her away from economic hardship and small-town bigotry. Married to the man of her dreams, Ruth loves her new life, but part of her heart belongs in the past, with a dark secret.
When her husband praises her as the perfect future mother and talks about starting a family, Ruth can no longer separate the past from the present. She confesses her truth: she gave up a baby for adoption in high school. He feels betrayed: Is their whole marriage a lie?
As he retreats, Ruth feels compelled to uncover answers about the baby boy she only glimpsed at birth. She returns home to Indiana and discovers the factory town of her childhood is dying, and unemployment is fueling racial tension. Her family refuses to discuss the pregnancy and refuses to accept her financial help, even though they’re suffering. In the midst of this, Ruth forms an unlikely bond with a poor white kid, who is also struggling with his sense of home.
Sixth grader Midnight is an unforgettable character. He’s most at ease with the Black kids, but he’s an outlier in both communities. Emotionally and physically scarred, he’s a spunky survivor, a good soul who changes his cousin’s diapers and pays attention to his sick grandmother’s diet. He’s also a broken, lost, angry child, which means he’s going to screw up. When he did, I was heartsick.
This is such an important story about modern American society, but it’s also a compelling novel about people desperate to do right by their families and protect them at all costs. I loved every page, and the ending brought me back to the feeling I had on the night of Obama’s election: hope.