Skip to main content

The Kindest Lie


The Kindest Lie

From debut novelist Nancy Johnson comes THE KINDEST LIE, an Obama-era foray into the divide that sours the relationships between Black and white communities as all members embark on their own searches for the life promised to them as part of the American Dream.

The year is 2008, and Ruth Tuttle and her husband, Xavier, are celebrating the election of President Barack Obama. As one of the few Black engineers at her company, Ruth is feeling especially hopeful on this historic night: she is surrounded by good friends, her marriage is strong, and she and her husband have just purchased their own townhouse. Xavier, a charismatic natural-born leader, is eager to begin filling their new home with babies. Although Ruth goes through the motions and attempts to go along with the plan, she finds herself unable to feel excitement, and he notices.

Unbeknownst to Xavier, there is a very real reason for Ruth’s hesitance. When she was only 17 years old, she gave birth to a boy, a secret she has kept from everyone but her grandmother, Mama, and brother, Eli. Ruth was destined for the Ivy Leagues --- a far cry from her poor, dead-end neighborhood --- and a baby would have not only seriously derailed her plans, but trapped her in a world without options or opportunities. Unwilling to let her granddaughter fail, Mama assisted Ruth in hiding her pregnancy, even going so far as to help her give birth at home and put the baby up for adoption.

"At once a mystery, a heartfelt portrayal of motherhood and a searing exploration of the struggles faced by Americans in the wake of the 2008 recession, THE KINDEST LIE is a perfect tapestry of what it means to be American today --- Black or white."

Now, 11 years later, Ruth cannot envision herself becoming a mother for a second time without knowing what has become of her son. Is he loved? Does he go to a good school? Have his parents had the “talk” with him about keeping safe in a world that views young Black boys as thugs, and toys and phones as lethal weapons? With her husband’s icy, silent blessing, she returns to the Indiana factory town where she was born, raised and forced into a life of secrecy, intent on finding her son and setting the past right.

When Ruth arrives in Ganton, she finds a town stuck in the past: people still “stick to their kind” for the most part, and, regardless of race, no one can be considered middle-class or above it. Racial tensions are fueled by the closing of the local factory, Fernwood, which has put most of the town’s working men and women --- including Eli --- out of jobs. Poverty-stricken, ignored and desperate, residents are eager for a change, but uncertain that Obama will be the one to make it. Ruth’s arrival --- and her decidedly middle-class success --- draws sharp attention to the many ways that Ganton has been left behind by both Ruth and America.

As Ruth reunites with her grandmother and brother and tries to pull the truth about her son from them, she uncovers more than a few secrets, all painful and thought-provoking. Mama and Eli bear no ill will toward Ruth for her success, but they are also hell-bent on defending their actions that helped her become a Black engineer married to an equally successful man --- and, as Ruth learns, they put her first in more ways than she ever realized. As she investigates the truth about her baby’s adoption, Ruth befriends Midnight, a young white boy nicknamed for his apparent desire to be Black like his friends (as he explains to Ruth, “Fat boys, they call Tiny. Me, I’m Midnight"). But their friendship --- along with the escalating tensions in town --- has unexpected consequences that draw Ruth closer to the truth and the careful bonds of Ganton closer to the fires of destruction.

THE KINDEST LIE is a gorgeously written book with a satisfying mystery at its heart. Though I found Ruth’s naivete a bit unbelievable at times, I thoroughly enjoyed her journey through motherhood. Johnson covers many surprising themes in her jewel of a book, but her passages on motherhood were some of the most emotional for me. Grappling with the belief that she gave her son up and therefore has no right to know him now, Ruth’s desperate need to find him and know that he is safe will tug at the heartstrings of any parent. Her own parental trauma adds some glorious depth to her character and makes clear the stakes of her search. That said, the real strength of this book came from Johnson’s ability to take on headfirst the myriad complex and seemingly unsolvable issues that plague Black America; though Ruth is her protagonist, she doesn’t waste a word or character when it comes to her supporting cast.

At once a mystery, a heartfelt portrayal of motherhood and a searing exploration of the struggles faced by Americans in the wake of the 2008 recession, THE KINDEST LIE is a perfect tapestry of what it means to be American today --- Black or white. With laser precision, Johnson unpacks how class inequalities have fueled racial tensions within the communities that have been largely forgotten, ignored and put into downright dangerous positions by wealthy white politicians and those who vote for them. Through Ruth, Johnson lays bare the many ways that Black families are forced to find loopholes within the system to draw a path to success. Through Midnight, she makes clear the ways that the 1% have redirected the rage of lower-class whites at their Black peers.

This is a nuanced but accessible portrayal of our nation, and though Johnson does not shy away from painful, horrifying truths, she maintains a stunning air of hope through her complex, instantly relatable characters. Through them, she explores the distance between our journeys and the lies we tell ourselves about them --- kind or not.

Beautifully written, endlessly profound and sharply drawn, THE KINDEST LIE is a heart-wrenching and deeply necessary book for all readers, perfect for those who enjoyed A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD or LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 5, 2021

The Kindest Lie
by Nancy Johnson

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0063005646
  • ISBN-13: 9780063005648