I chose this book out of local interest and interest in the subject matter rather than expectations for its literary merit. It is pop lit—don’t read it looking for deep or insightful characterization or beautiful use of language—but successful pop lit: it’s a compelling story that I zipped through. Chamberlain makes excellent use of tension and momentum, expertly crafting the story to hold the reader’s attention, so that you’ll always want to read just one more chapter.
Necessary Lies is set in North Carolina in 1960, and the subject is the state’s eugenics program (which operated until 1975; it’s made headlines in recent years, and continues to do so with the debate over reparations). Eugenics mostly fell out of fashion in the U.S. with the Nazis, but it was considered a progressive cause in the 1920s (this should frighten all who think of themselves as progressive. Conservatives I presume are used to being on the wrong side of history), and was used against mental patients and welfare recipients, particularly African-Americans or those seen as “feebleminded.” The story is told through two alternating voices: that of Jane, an idealistic social worker fresh out of college, and Ivy, a 15-year-old girl and one of Jane’s clients. Ivy lives in a rural area, in a home with few modern conveniences, and struggles to keep her family together. It’s not easy, as her family consists of a grandmother who consistently ignores medical advice; an older sister who appears to be developmentally disabled and has already given birth once; and a 2-year-old nephew who has yet to learn to speak, and whom no one is really able to supervise.
In her Author’s Note, Chamberlain points out that she chose not to sensationalize the story of the eugenics program, and this is one of the strengths of the book. If you read articles about it you’ll probably find stories like the one of the teenage boy who was sterilized because he was a “troublemaker,” based on his running away from home, which he did because he was abused. Here though, the picture is more nuanced, and we see why the social workers—who are empowered to petition for sterilization—come to the conclusions that they do. Pleasant and well-meaning people (Charlotte, Paula) are in favor of the program because they believe it’s best for their clients, and are impatient with Jane’s qualms, without ever descending into rants about the improvement of the race.
But the plot itself does descend into unnecessary drama: Someone breaks her leg! A barn catches fire! Someone’s dying of cancer! The core story has enough power that the book doesn’t need these distractions. And too much of the conflict depends on intelligent people ignoring clear warning signs. Jane gets teary-eyed during her job interview when the interviewer says she’s a widow; obviously Jane is incapable of the emotional distance she’ll need to avoid getting too personally involved in her clients’ lives, yet she’s hired on the spot. And Jane marries a conservative social climber despite the fact that they have no common goals, beliefs or expectations. As we aren’t shown the sort of love or attraction that might smooth over their differences, it’s no surprise that their marriage is on the rocks within a week. The question is why they marry at all, other than as a source of conflict in Jane’s personal life.
The characters are nothing special either. Jane is a conglomeration of traits that never gel: she’s frank and direct to a fault, but doesn’t communicate to her fiance that she’s determined to have a career and put off children; she has a childlike idealism but uses birth control behind her husband’s back; she’s a perfectionist who pores over office manuals, but doesn’t realize taking her clients on a spontaneous road trip is against all the rules. Ivy is less contradictory, but more unformed, and her rural-accented voice teeters on the edge of being too folksy, though Chamberlain does a good job of distinguishing between the two. The individual scenes ring true, but the characters never take on a life of their own.
Otherwise, the visual details are good, the themes well-presented, and I appreciate Chamberlain’s inclusion of actual Eugenics Board documents where they become relevant to the story. Her choice to put a white face on the victims of the program is conspicuous, given that the majority of the real victims were black (there is a black woman who’s been sterilized, but she’s here to represent those who’d already had children and wanted it). But it’s a defensible choice: white authors assuming the voices of black characters in the segregated South is tricky at best, and if Ivy’s family was black many readers would interpret this as just another Jim Crow book, rather than focusing on the issue of poverty. Which would be a shame, because Chamberlain highlights issues that remain timely today; there are no easy answers for Ivy and her family, no matter how well-meaning their social workers.
At any rate, this is a quick and easy read if you want to think about serious issues but aren’t looking for anything too deep. Probably ideal for book clubs. The characters are nothing special, but I still enjoyed my time with it.