Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Necessary Lies

Last summer I read by Diane Chamberlain's Necessary Lies (St Martin's Press, 2014) but never got around to blogging about it.  However, with the current emphasis on lies and "alternate facts," now seems a good time to review the novel.

First, I'd like to quote parts of a few reviews in the book's front matter:

"This novel, about the courage it takes to be who you're supposed to be even when all of society's messages are telling you otherwise, is full of discoveries—for the reader as well as for the struggling but brave protagonists."—Katrina Kittle, author of The Blessings of the Animals

". . . you will be reminded how poverty is our enemy and how power is dangerous when it's in the wrong hands." —Leslie Kagen, author of Mare's Nest

". . . a powerful portrait of courage and redemption. . . . expertly entertwines histroy and matters of the heart—love, loyalty, and choosing what's right, no matter the consequences."—Heather Gudenhauf, author of The Weight of Silence and One Breath Away

I loved the book. Six months after I read it, parts still stick in my mind. Necessary Lies is set in 1960 in a rural North Carolina County, where Jane Forrester—newly graduated from the Woman's College in Greensboro and newly married to a pediatrician she'd met the previous summer—wants to work for a while before she has children. Her husband, of course, wants her to stay at home, join the Junior League, have children, attend country club functions, etc.—all the proper wifely things a husband expects. After all, he notes, she doesn't have to work—he can support her.  She can't even get the new birth control pills without his permission which he will not give. However, she lies to a doctor to get them and doesn't bother to tell her husband she's taking them.

Meanwhile, Jane goes to work for the Grace County Department of Public Health as a social worker. Since her husband disparagese her work—and would be shocked to know of her working conditions in the field, she doesn't tell him much about what her job entails. Besides seeing a slew of clients, she is expected to to decide which of those clients should be sterilized. Those who are poor, feeble-minded, or otherwise unfit to raise children are prime candidates. When her immediate superior breaks a leg, Jane is thrust into responsibilities that she isn't prepared for.

Among her clients are the Harts who work for Mr. Gardiner on his tobacco farm as did the generation before them—fifteen year-old Ivy, her elderly grandmother Nonnie, her blonde and beautiful older sister Mary Ella, and Mary Ella's child, Baby William. Mary Ella was sterilized witn Nonnie's consent not long after Baby William was born; she was told she was having her appendix out. Mary Ella won't say who the toddler's father is. Because of his dark complexion, it's possible it might be one of many black farmhands. While Mr. Gardiner is generous in providing some food for the Harts, it isn't enough.They need Jane's help.

Jane becomes a bit too involved with the family. Things take a few dark twists and turns, but I won't reveal those. Suffice to say there are a lot of lies told and a lot of truths revealed. And some bad things happen. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and truth ultimately wins out.

The novel has three narrators. Brenna who begins it in 2011. Then it flashes back to 1960 where Jane and Ivy alternate in telling the story. Finally Brenna ends it in 2011.

I remember 1960. It was a man's world back then and few rights were given to women—including the right for a woman to make her own reproductive decisions. It would be a while before women would be able to demand their rights.

It's difficult to believe that women would be sterilized against their will, but it happened too frequently back in the day. As the author points out in her notes at the novel's end, "From 1929 until 1975, North Carolina sterilized over seven thousand of its citizens. The program targeted the 'mentally defective,' the 'feeble-minded,' inmates in mental institutions and training schools, those suffering with epilepsy, and other whose sterilization was considered 'for the public good.' "

For the public good. The author notes: "While other states had similar programs, most of them stopped performing state-mandated sterilizations after World War II, uncomfortable over comparisons to the eugenics experiments in Nazi Germany."

So, while the characters are products of the author's imagination, the history isn't. Chamberlain does a skillful and effective job in blending the two. Her characters are believable and three dimensional. The story she tells is compelling. I highly recommend that anyone who is concerned with the rights of women read this book.

And that's no lie.

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