Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Aug 12, 2015
This is that type of book. When we discussed it at my book club last month, we didn't even have a discussion leader (an accidental oversight), but this book just carried itself.
The story is set in North Carolina in 1961 and is told from two perspectives: Jane's, a newly married and recently graduated social worker and Ivy's, a fifteen-year-old white girl who lives and works on a tobacco farm. Their paths cross when Jane gets assigned as Ivy's family's caseworker. Ivy's family is made up of her diabetic grandma, her seventeen-year-old sister Mary Ella, and her two-year-old nephew William.
Jane finds out early in her orientation that Mary Ella was sterilized by the state immediately after giving birth to her illegitimate son. Such a procedure was approved because Mary Ella has a low IQ and lives in impoverished circumstances. Mary Ella was told that she just got her appendix taken out.
This strikes Jane as very wrong, and she is quite disturbed that the state has power to decide a woman's future. So when she's informed that she needs to begin working on a petition to have the same procedure done to Ivy, naturally she's a little resistant. Ivy's case is more complicated: for one thing, her IQ is higher than Mary Ella's (but she does have petit mal seizures, which is one of the other things that can qualify you). Her situation is just as bleak as Mary Ella's, but it quickly becomes obvious to Jane that it's Ivy who is holding the family together. Jane doesn't feel like it's right to sterilize someone just because of the circumstances they were born into (and of course, Jane's compassion and honesty gets her into a lot of trouble right from the start).
Meanwhile, Ivy is concerned with a lot of things: she's worried about Baby William's safety (her grandma watches him while she and Mary Ella work in the tobacco, but he's often dangerously neglected), she can't get her grandma to follow the nurse's directions and take care of her diabetes, and she has a boyfriend (but it's the tobacco farm owner's son, so the relationship has to be kept completely secret). And then . . . something else happens and Ivy's (and, by consequence, Jane's) life becomes even more complicated.
Prior to reading this book, I didn't know anything about the eugenics program. It struck me rather uncomfortably (and strikes Jane the same way) how similar it sounded to the Nazi's sterilization program during World War II. It's also rather ironic (and someone made this observation at book club) that Jane's doctor won't prescribe her birth control without her husband's permission, and Ivy won't have a say in her sterilization. Even though Jane and Ivy live vastly different lives, both of them don't have as much control over their lives as they want.
But the situation that bothered me even more than Jane's or Ivy's was the one involving Baby William. He is a typical two-year-old (although, like Mary Ella, he seems to be of low intelligence). If you've spent any time around a child that age, you know that he or she needs constant supervision because they can find trouble or danger in a blink of an eye. Baby William isn't getting that constant attention (many times, he's not getting any attention), and consequently, he gets into some life-threatening scrapes.
But never has a boy been so loved by his mother; Mary Ella loves him fiercely, tenderly. Baby William is her whole world. Everything she does is for him. The nature of growing up on a farm a with family who has to work for their survival means that he is sometimes neglected, not out of irresponsibility but out of necessity (and if you look back at the history of the world, including many areas still today, children have often been left to their own devices while their parents are working).
Jane's supervisor is convinced that Baby William needs to be removed from the home (and Jane thinks so too). She feels like he doesn't stand a chance in that kind of environment--not mentally or emotionally or physically (his very life sometimes seems to be in jeopardy).
But in considering Baby William's fate, I felt like they were pitting two lives against each other and giving more value to Baby William's than Mary Ella's. Jane kept justifying her actions because it was in Baby William's best interest (which could also be debated . . . ). But what gives one human the right to decide another human's future . . . to basically say, We value his life more than hers?
Of course, since Ivy's family is on welfare, they agreed to have this sort of invasive control over their lives in exchange for help, but it all just rubbed me the wrong way. Even little things, like this passage: "Charlotte [that's Jane's supervisor] was ticking off on her fingers what needed to be done for the family. 'We have to find larger-sized clothing. And call Ann Laing. That rash on Baby William . . . I bet it's the laundry soap they're using to wash his clothes. Ann needs to check it and also bring Ivy contraceptives, just in case.'" It was discomforting for me to hear these intimate needs of the family reduced to an impassive checklist. It felt like Ivy's family should be more involved in their own welfare.
I think things have thankfully changed quite a bit since 1961. For one thing, we don't have the eugenics program. But for another, there's more education that goes on. I would hope that if this same story happened today that they would work with Mary Ella to keep Baby William with his family instead of automatically assuming that the situation would be improved by removing him.
The ending seemed a little overly dramatic; I won't go into details but will say that Jane breaks almost every rule possible and somehow does things she's had no training for. But then, what's a climax for if not a couple of policemen banging on a door and ripping apart a family?
I absolutely loved Diane Chamberlain's writing. My friend described it as "effortless," and I think that one word sums up exactly what made this so enjoyable to read. It's not the type of writing where you stop and revel in the beauty of the words. But neither do you feel like the words are holding back the story and forcing it into some preconceived box. In fact, you don't even notice the words. I might as well have been listening or watching for how easily and vividly the story unfolded. Somehow Diane Chamberlain struck that magical balance right down the middle, and many times I forgot I was reading.
I've decided this might be my favorite kind of novel: historical fiction with riveting characters and moral dilemmas and heart-wrenching scenes. A novel with some substance and something to think about, but a story that will make me feel the entire time. This book was not only captivating to read but made for a great discussion afterwards. A perfect book club book, if ever there was one.
Content note: Some brief mentions of sex and mild language and disturbing situations.