A book about lies that come from good intentions, the harm they can cause, and the power to overcome them, all in the context of living in America while Black.
Plot: Ruth grew up in a poor factory Indiana town she couldn’t wait to get away from. When she won a full ride scholarship to Yale, she knew that was her way out. Then she got pregnant. The baby was given up for adoption and Ruth moved on. Now a chemical engineer and happily married to a marketing executive with political aspirations, the secret of her past are forcing their way to the surface, and once she pulls on the thread, so much more comes up.
One of my favourite styles of writing is about the every day lives of people living through historic times (think Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt). Particularly when a story explores the ways in which those larger than life events change the lives of ordinary people, and likewise the ways in which they absolutely do not. The Kindest Lie explores Ruth’s journey to her still quite segregated home town in the wake of Obama’s first election president. As Black people celebrate this watershed moment in ways inextricable from class (an expensive themed party in Chicago with other Black elites, putting up Yes We Can election posters in run down predominantly Black neighborhoods), we see through Ruth’s eyes the ways in Black people in the United States have persevered or been brought low by both interpersonal micro racism and systemic tools used to keep their communities from thriving. It is an unflinching look at the history of racism in the US and the different ways in which people of all colours have reacted to it, good and bad. It does all of this without judgement. Johnson crafts characters and situations that are understandable if not sympathetic, even as they do and think things that are abhorrent.
I will say I struggled to like Ruth (and I don’t think I was supposed to). As more secrets come out around the town, decisions made by people and the layers of lies that had to protect the secrecy of those decisions, Ruth’s lies always felt different. The lies other characters told in the book were meant to protect the people they loved, the communities they loved. They were meant to help people achieve their goals and were, as the title of the book suggests, rooted in kindness. But Ruth’s lies are not like that. Her lies are self serving and while everyone else has to be held accountable for their lies (which, again, were generally the best decision a person was able to make in a really difficult situation with no clear path forward), Ruth is never held accountable, even as she continues to make self serving decision after another, angry at other people for carrying her burdens for her the best way they knew how, all the way to the last page of the book. It felt like the book was trying to convince me that all of the lies told were the same, that the intentions really don’t matter, and even as a borderline belligerent truth teller, it did not convince me.
It is an expertly crafted book and one that I strongly recommend for book clubs. You’ll find a lot to talk about.