Review: The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

by Heather Caliendo
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Editorial note: I received a copy of The Kindest Lie in exchange for a review.

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson is an impactful read about motherhood, race and class.

When I put together my must-read book club picks for 2021 list, I knew I had to include The Kindest Lie. It’s one of those books that you know will leave a lasting impression. And it definitely did. While it’s still early in the year, this is the best book I’ve read so far and I know it will be on all the top lists by the end of 2021. I hope one of the celebrity book clubs pick this because there is just so much to discuss and dissect! I finished the book a couple days ago and I’m still thinking about it.

The synopsis

It’s 2008, and the inauguration of President Barack Obama ushers in a new kind of hope. In Chicago, Ruth Tuttle, an Ivy-League educated Black engineer, is married to a kind and successful man. He’s eager to start a family, but Ruth is uncertain. She has never gotten over the baby she gave birth to—and was forced to leave behind—when she was a teenager. She had promised her family she’d never look back, but Ruth knows that to move forward, she must make peace with the past.

Returning home, Ruth discovers the Indiana factory town of her youth is plagued by unemployment, racism, and despair. As she begins digging into the past, she unexpectedly befriends Midnight, a young white boy who is also adrift and looking for connection. Just as Ruth is about to uncover a burning secret her family desperately wants to keep hidden, a traumatic incident strains the town’s already searing racial tensions, sending Ruth and Midnight on a collision course that could upend both their lives.

Powerful and revealing, The Kindest Lie captures the heartbreaking divide between Black and white communities and offers both an unflinching view of motherhood in contemporary America and the never-ending quest to achieve the American Dream.

Ruth’s journey

Ruth is such an engaging protagonist with a complicated past. On paper she has it all: successful career, loving husband but she can never shake the guilt over giving up her baby she had when she was a teenager. It’s time for her to find a way to move on and to do that, she needs to go back to her small hometown to face her past. But her hometown has changed and not for the good—the factory that employed many of the town is shut down. And there’s still racial divide and tensions that grow stronger each day.

When Ruth left for college, she truly ran away from her past and home. So coming back is quite complicated and every where she goes, she’s reminded of what she had to give up.

The story really explores motherhood from a different perspective—one who had to give up motherhood but yet still is a mother and cares for her son.

I also thought her grandmother, Mama, was quite an interesting character as well. Ruth and her brother Eli were raised by Mama and Papa, her grandfather, and they did everything possible to make sure they had a stable childhood. But Mama had to make some really tough decisions too, which has lasting impacts on Ruth’s life.

The era

I felt the author Nancy Johnson really painted a vivid picture of the recession’s impact on small town America. Oftentimes, stories are set in big cities and it was a refreshing change to read about the type of town that is often overlooked.

The time period—2008—was a difficult and transformative era. The nation elected its first black president but he inherited an economic disaster. Anyone who lived through that era as an adult can vividly remember all the hardship. No one was spared from it. And the most hard hit were the small towns like the one depicted in The Kindest Lie.

It’s interesting to think we’re so far away from that era and have accomplished much—but then the pandemic hit. And now many are facing similar economic hardships.

In addition to class, this novel focuses on race relations and social injustice. This town is segregated in many ways and there is a clear divide between the white and black communities.

The friendship between Ruth and Midnight, a young white boy, is very unique. Midnight lost his mom and Ruth doesn’t know what happened to her son—so they develop a kinship of sorts. I really liked that story choice.

This is a dynamic but also a quiet story in many ways. I highly recommend you read it! Check out my book club questions here.

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