It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie, addressing issues of race, class, privilege and upward mobility.
Ganton, Indiana, is a town whose “very soul was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of.” One of the lucky few who managed to escape this dying factory town is Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman who headed to Yale, became a successful chemical engineer and now lives in Chicago with her equally successful, charismatic husband, Xavier.
The world seems their oyster as they celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008, but that bubble bursts when Xavier mentions he is ready to start a family. Ruth has a secret that she finally reveals to Xavier: At age 17, before graduating high school, she gave birth to a son who was whisked away and given up for adoption by her grandmother, who raised her. When Ruth returns to Ganton to search for her son, she encounters an 11-year-old white boy, nicknamed Midnight, the grandson of Lena, a close family friend.
Ruth and Midnight trade narration between chapters as their lives become increasing intertwined. Midnight’s mother died in childbirth—as did his sister—and Midnight and Ruth are lonely, heartbroken souls struggling to find their way forward. With beautifully crafted prose and a gift for dialog, Johnson takes readers on an action-packed ride toward a dramatic, revelatory conclusion. As Ruth’s grandmother warns, “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day. And it’s going to bite you. Real hard.”
A fictional callback to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, The Kindest Lie also brings to mind Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, in which another young Black woman returns to her hometown to try to reconcile her past, present and future. Don’t miss this powerful debut.