By: Diane Chamberlain
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: September 2013
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: July 2013
In Necessary Lies, author Diane Chamberlain uses fictional characters to bring the reader back to the early 1960s, in the deep, rural South, where poverty was plentiful and the 'Eugenics Sterilization Program' was a very real method used to control the poor and 'mentally defective' population.
Jane Forrester is a newlywed who has just accepted a position as a social worker in Grace County, one of the poorest districts in North Carolina. Her husband, a pediatrician, is against his wife taking such a job, let alone working at all. It is, after all, 1960, and a doctor's wife should not work. What would people at the country club think if they knew that his wife was working? It would reflect poorly on him and he couldn't allow that. Jane, however, is a very strong willed individual and insists on working outside of the home. This disagreement causes tension throughout the story.
Jane's biggest problem as a social worker is that she gets too emotionally attached to her clients. One family that she desperately wants to help is made up of Noonie, the grandmother, her two teenage granddaughters, Mary Ella and Ivy, and Mary Ella's toddler, 'Baby William.' The family is dirt poor, and are tenants on a tobacco farm. Through the farm owner's generosity, they are allowed to live in a home on the property in exchange for working on the farm. But with Noonie's deteriorating health, and Mary Ella constantly getting sidetracked looking after her son, and being chased by numerous local boys who are entranced by her beauty and easy ways, the family's contribution to the farm is dwindling. There's always the chance they could be asked to leave.
Mary Ella, a mildly retarded girl, was sterilized without her knowledge, immediately after giving birth. Noonie had signed the authorization papers, and agreed to the procedure in the hopes of bettering her granddaughter's life. Now it appears that Ivy, a relatively bright girl who suffers from mild epilepsy, may be headed down the same path. Noonie knows that the girl sneaks out at night and she's afraid that there will soon be another baby in the house. Noonie wants Ivy sterilized too, and this is about the time that Jane takes over from the previous social worker, a woman who agreed with Noonie about what was best for the girls. However, Jane is hesitant to fill out the application for sterilization. How can she allow a teenage girl, who wants to one day have a family, be sterilized without her knowledge? That is the dilemma facing Jane as she becomes increasingly attached to Ivy.
In the author's note in the back of the book, Chamberlain explains that the 'Eugenics Sterilization Program' was a real program, and from 1929 to 1975, the state of North Carolina sterilized over 7,000 people. Initially aimed at the 'mentally defective,' the program expanded to include others whose sterilization was "for the public good." Necessary Lies is told in the first person, through the eyes of both Jane and Ivy. The characters are very real, and the poverty that those in Grace County (a fictional place) endure is overpowering. Assumptions are made by the reader, assumptions that are proven incorrect and really cause one to consider the tragedy of the disgraceful eugenics programs that existed in various parts of the U.S. not so long ago. The stupidity and shallowness that Jane faces from her peers are in sharp contrast to the lives and trials that her clients are forced to deal with on a daily basis. If you want a tale that will linger with you long after you've finished reading, and a story that will really make you think, then start reading Necessary Lies.
Quill says: Bestselling author Diane Chamberlain shows readers just what made her such a popular writer in this stunning, fictionalized tale of a very real time in our not-too-distant past.