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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Necessary Lies Heartbreaking But Hopeful

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Twenty-two years old and newly married, adventurous Jane Forrester is ready to set the world on fire.  Although her straight-laced husband would prefer she spend her days sipping iced tea at the country club with the other wives in their circle, Jane is anxious to begin her career as a social worker with the Department of Public Welfare.  She can't wait to play Superwoman to Raleigh's most pitiable citizens.  

When Jane begins making house calls in poor, rural Grace County, she's shocked to see her charges living in absolute squalor, the likes of which she has never experienced in her privileged life.  Her heart especially aches for 15-year-old Ivy Hart, an epileptic orphan who labors tirelessly on a tobacco farm just to keep a roof over her family's heads.  As caretaker of her ill grandmother, her sister with special needs, and her sister's toddler, Ivy's barely got enough strength to make it through the day.  When it's suggested that Ivy might be a prime candidate for North Carolina's eugenics program, Jane's torn.  While it's obvious the young woman can't handle one more stressor, "voluntary" sterilization seems extreme, even for a penniless child with no future.  The more time Jane spends with the Harts, the more she longs to ease Ivy's burdens.  When dark secrets start to surface, she must decide just how far she's willing to go—how much she's prepared to risk—to give Ivy the chance she deserves.

Until I picked up Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain, I had never heard of North Carolina's eugenics program, which operated between the 1930s and 1970s.  While the aim of the initiative was to sterilize only the mentally-challenged inmates of public institutions, it was more widely applied, leading to the sterilization of over 7500 people.  Many of the operations were coerced and performed on impoverished Black women.  Chamberlain brings the issue to vivid, heartbreaking life in Necessary Lies, an emotionally-charged historical novel that definitely hit me right in the feels.  The women at its center—Jane and Ivy—are both sympathetic characters who are so well-drawn they feel real.  My heart ached for them both.  Their stories are compelling and riveting, which made for a novel that is as gut-wrenching as it is engrossing and thought-provoking.  Although Necessary Lies tells a grim story, in the end it's a hopeful novel.  The tale moved me with its complex characters, intriguing conflict, and powerful storytelling.  I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book, which I enjoyed very much.

(Readalikes:  I haven't read The First Lie by Diane Chamberlain yet, but it's a novella that tells Ivy's story.)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, mild sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


  1. Wow, that sounds like a very powerful book. I don't know much about eugenics but it was mentioned in a non-fiction book I'm reading about vintage crime authors. Apparently some well known authors were supporters of it back in the 1930s. Not sure this book is for me but I enjoyed your excellent review.

    1. Really? Very interesting. I had never heard about eugenics being used in the U.S. before. This book was definitely an eye-opener for me.

  2. This sounds like a tough one to get through. The eugenics movement in this country may have begun as a well-intentioned plan, but it was very badly abused by people with a whole other purpose in mind. With the risk of offending others, I have to say that in my estimation Planned Parenthood has, and has had, a lot of the same problems and suffers/ed from the influence of similar people.

    1. The author makes it clear that the plan was started with good intentions but went very awry. It unfairly targeted Black women, the operations were often coerced, and many didn't even realize what was happening to them.

      I don't know enough about Planned Parenthood to comment on that, but the whole idea is horrifying to me.

  3. This is quite a compelling story! 👍

  4. What a timely book given the sterilization stories coming out of the Georgia detention centers.

    1. I hadn't heard the stories out of Georgia. Yikes. How heartbreaking.

  5. I know a little about eugenics but not very much but this sounds like a good way to learn more. This doesn't sound like the book for me right now but I think I'd enjoy it later.

    1. I've only heard/read about eugenics in other countries. This book definitely opened my eyes.

  6. Diane Chamberlain is an author I greatly enjoy, however I haven't read this particular title of hers, so I will have to look into it after this thoughtful review of yours. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I started reading this in the summer and put it aside. I need to get back to it and will start over. It was terrible what happened to these young people in Georgia, but it wasn't the only place this was carried out. I know it was done more widely than people are aware of.


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