Necessary Lies: A Review

Necessary Lies

Aaaaannd I’m back!

Hello internet!  I’ve come back to you with another review, and this time it is for Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain.  I read this book last year, and it was easily my favorite of the standalones for last year, and probably for the past several years.  I picked this book up on Book Outlet during one of their sales, since the premise sounded interesting.  It was highly rated, but I still didn’t expect what I got.

Necessary Lies is historical fiction, and is set in rural North Carolina in 1960.  The story follows Jane, a social worker, as she is assigned a set of underprivileged families to help – to garner resources as well as trying to make them as self-sufficient as possible.  Jane is white, at least middle class, and is intimidated by working with people she can’t relate to and has really only heard about – the poor white and black families of Grace County.  Very quickly, Jane realizes that she will be expected to make decisions for these families that she is uncomfortable with and morally conflicted about, often without their permission.

This book is primarily about the voluntary and involuntary sterilization of thousands of our country’s poor – mainly black – and otherwise “unfit” men and women.  This was a normal practice for decades, and it lasted much longer in North Carolina than any other state.

This book was beautifully and realistically written, from the plot to the characters to the setting. It was often difficult to read, not because of the writing, but because the story was so overwhelming and intense, and because much of the intolerance and misunderstanding that has marked (and continues to stain) our nation was portrayed so matter-of-factly, adding to the authenticity of the story. It seemed I was always annotating and pondering as I made my way through the book.

The characters are defiantly real, leaping from the pages into your heart. There are some sad endings, and some happy ones, the way it happens in real life. The book is also very well-researched, and in its realness teaches a lesson that could have been overdone (but wasn’t).

The themes of acceptance, embracing differences, and humanizing people we see as “other” help me to give this book a 5 star rating, as well as the realistic portrayal of bravery and fighting for what is “right.” This book shows how slow the process of progressive change can be.  Jane wanted to give agency back to her clients, but at times, her thoughts of them could still be classified as racist, classist, etc.  She was a product of her time, and progressivism in 1960 looked different than it does now, which I think it is a main concept of this book.

Although race was mentioned many times in the book, in a lot of ways, the feelings and emotions it brought up weren’t wholly unpacked, and I think that Diane Chamberlain relied a lot on her readers to know why certain things were wrong or offensive, and didn’t elaborate on some areas where she could.  However, the book had a story to tell, and there are so many convoluted parts to the story of our country’s relationship with the poor, and with minorities, and the book would probably still be being written if she decided to unpack it all.

Bravery, loyalty, trust, authority, agency, compassion, humanization – if you enjoy reading about these ideas, you will enjoy this book.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read this book, or if you’d like to.  I haven’t been able to really discuss this book with anyone yet, and I would love to!  See you all in the next one!


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