Review: When hope and change aren’t enough, a successful Black woman heads back home

Author Nancy Johnson sits on a couch.
Nancy Johnson’s debut novel is “The Kindest Lie.”
(Nina Subin)

On the Shelf

The Kindest Lie

By Nancy Johnson
William Morrow: 326 pages, $28

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Measured by any yardstick, Ruth Tuttle and her husband, Xavier Shaw, are living the dream of Black uplift. “The Kindest Lie,” Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, opens on election night, 2008. Ruth, a 29-year-old Yale engineering grad working for a consumer packaged-goods company, and Xavier, 32, a PepsiCo marketing vice president, are hosting a watch party at their new townhome in the gentrified Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Their guests are a cross-section of Chicago’s Black community, from an elderly postal worker to a lesbian couple Ruth met through a local Yale alumni group.

As the results roll in, the attendees are giddy with joy. “It felt like they were hurtling toward inevitability, and as guests arrived, the mood in their living room became electric. But were they setting themselves up for a fall? After all, their hope rested with a man whose name reeked of improbability with its questionable linguistic roots. Barack Hussein Obama.”

Ruth’s concerns about Obama’s victory are conflated with her own persistent worries. Her STEM degree, good Chicago job and charming, politically ambitious husband have distanced her from a hardscrabble upbringing in working-class Ganton, Ind. Ruth and her brother were raised by her grandparents after her mother, a drug addict, abandoned her children. And despite having an ethnically ambiguous name bestowed on her by her grandmother in the belief it “would at least get her to the interview,” Ruth harbors a secret not even her husband knows: At 17, she gave birth to a child. After the home birth, her grandmother immediately had the child spirited away so Ruth could get back on her predetermined path to Yale.

Now Xavier wants to start a family — ticking off the last task in his American Dream checklist. The prospect fills Ruth with dread and a heretofore unacknowledged longing to learn what happened to her firstborn. When Xavier challenges her ambivalence about having a baby, the ugly truth comes out, driving a wedge between the couple. Taking refuge on the road, Ruth drives home to Ganton to find her child and make sense of that part of her life. “Having a son was like holding a puzzle piece that didn’t fit, no matter how many times you looked at the picture on the box,” Johnson writes. “Still, not being in his life tore at something inside her, a rupture that time and marriage couldn’t stitch together.”


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Ruth’s return to the fictional town of Ganton opens up the novel, exposing the lives of those left behind in the headlong march of progress represented by Ruth and Xavier’s success and Obama’s election. Ganton, whose “very soil was a trapdoor” for Ruth, “a gateway to nothingness,” has become a shell of itself. Emblematic of much of small-town America, Ganton’s downtown business district has been supplanted by big-box retailers on the outskirts of town; the GM plant, a major employer, is about to close.

It is also segregated, like much of America still, with whites living in a part of town called Pratt and Black people on the Grundy side. It’s no place for a boy like Midnight, a poor, physically handicapped white kid who got his racist nickname for emulating the cool Black kids at school. Midnight lives, for the moment, with his grandmother, Lena. Ruth encounters the boy in Lena’s This ’n’ That shop on her way to her grandmother’s. Her connection with the boy, who dreams of becoming a microbiologist, awakens her maternal instincts and, somewhat predictably, brings her closer to her son.

"The Kindest Lie," by Nancy Johnson
(William Morrow)

Ruth’s journey to that reunion leads her to the town’s official adoption records and into its Black social networks, where she reestablishes her ties with a cross-section of Ganton residents she left behind: high school friends whose troubled lives easily could have been her fate; her brother, who spent half of his 34 years working at GM and now must remake himself to support his family; her grandmother, so intent on prodding Ruth’s ambitions that she failed to reckon with the damage caused by her lies; and Midnight and his family, victims of the same circumstances that crush Grundy residents. “Poverty didn’t discriminate in Ganton,” Ruth observes, “with Blacks and whites both getting their share of hard times.”

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The identity of the boy is revealed early on, but “The Kindest Lie” is less concerned with solving that mystery than examining the complex forces of racial inequity and the fateful decisions that can make or break a family, or a community. On those terms, the novel is a triumph, a deeply affecting work of truth and reconciliation over what it means to live the American Dream — and not just for the winners.

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.