"The Kindest Lie," | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“The Kindest Lie,” by Nancy Johnson, gives a gripping, honest look into the lives of the “haves” and the “have-nots” through the story of Ruth, the grandmother she calls Mama and a boy nicknamed Midnight.
Ruth is a chemical engineer who lives in Chicago with her husband Xavier, a marketing executive. Their pricey townhouse is located just far enough away from the housing projects that they rarely hear gunshots and sirens pervading those neighborhoods. Ruth and Xavier celebrated the recent election of Barack Obama as a sign that their race makes them equal in the eyes of the nation.
Xavier is ready to start a family. Ruth has never told him that she gave birth to a son when she was 17. She caught one glimpse of her son before Mama took him away following Ruth’s home birth. Ruth was headed to Yale; her grandparents sacrificing financially and personally throughout Ruth’s young life to make this happen.
Ruth had not thought of her child for years but suddenly feels a desperate need to find him. Alone, she returns to her small, dying town near Chicago to confront her grandmother. What did Mama do with her child?
The townspeople of Ganton, Indiana, are beaten down from poverty. The auto plant has closed. People are leaving to find work in other cities. Small businesses are shuttered daily. Ruth with her Gucci purse and sleek suits doesn’t fit in. The election of Obama, which gave Ruth such hope, has no influence on the townspeople. Their lives make them realistic about the impact such an achievement will personally have on them.
The harsh realities of life in Ganton are revealed through Midnight, a young boy. Children are left alone in the community while parents work, but with little work available, they often drift into alcoholism or drug use. Part-time jobs pay less than minimum wage. Few can afford medical care. Gang members from Chicago are recruiting children. Ruth is worried that her son is growing up in conditions such as these.
While Mama remains desperate that Ruth not locate her child, Midnight learns that he may be the link to Ruth discovering her son. Midnight imagines Ruth as his own mother figure; he is disappointed that it is someone else she treasures.
“The Kindest Lie” explores social and wealth disparity in the United States. The author’s prose captures the daily struggles of the poor and communicates how easily those with more comfortable lives forget or ignore what is going on with others. It’s impossible not to read this book and achieve a thoughtful perspective on society and perhaps a needed examination of self.