I met Diane Chamberlain at WNBA's Bibliofeast in 2013 and purchased her book, Necessary Lies, despite telling myself that I had enough books and wasn't going to buy one more! But when I saw it was set in North Carolina and written from two points of view--I couldn't resist. Another fortunate blog reader will be glad I did. When I confessed to Diane via Facebook that I couldn't part with my autographed copy, she indicated that her publicist would probably donate a copy as a giveaway. Thanks to Katie Bassel of St. Martin's Press, one of you will receive a free copy. Directions for entering this contest follow my review of this thought-provoking adult historical novel.
Necessary Lies documents an important story: the Eugenics Sterilization Program that sterilized over 7000 North Carolinians between 1929-1975. Set in the sixties, Diane Chamberlain does an excellent job portraying the internal and external conflicts her two protagonists face.
Jane Forrester is a 22-year-old idealistic newlywed who is eager to help people in her new job as a social worker. Her life is irrevocably changed when she meets her client Ivy Hart, a poor 15-year-old who is struggling to hold her family together. Ivy's father is dead, her mother is institutionalized; her grandmother (Nonnie) is ailing and doesn't take her diabetes medication; her 17-year-old sister (Mary Ella) is beautiful but feeble-minded; and her two-year-old nephew (William) is often neglected and shows signs of slow development.
The reality of Ivy's world shocks Jane on her first visit to the Hart's home; a shack on the tobacco farm where the girls are day laborers. In this conversation with Charlotte, the caseworker whose caseload she will be assuming, Jane begins to assess the situation and Chamberlain foreshadows the problems she will encounter:
"Mary Ella was kicked out of school when she became pregnant at fourteen," Charlotte said. "Once they're pregnant, that's the end of their education."
"Fourteen!" I said.
"Fifteen when she delivered."
"Who's the baby's father?" I asked.
Charlotte hesitated. "I doubt even Mary Ella knows," she said. "I have my suspicions but that's all they are. Mary Ella's blond as blond can be, but the baby's got very dark, very curly hair. His skin is fair enough, enough. He'll be able to pass."
"Oh," I said, taking that in.
"Don't put anything like that in your notes," she warned. "The last thing that girl needs is for people to think she's had relations with a colored boy, and a lynch mob would find out which one it was, you better believe it. Or they'd make a guess, which could be even worse. I didn't even mention my suspicions to the Eugenics Board."
"The Eugenics Board? For her, too? Are they going to sterilize her?"
"They already have," she said. "She's feeble-minded. IQ of seventy. But she doesn't know about the sterilization. Her grandmother and I agreed it was best to tell her she was having her appendix out."
My mouth dropped open and Charlotte glanced over a me. "Sometimes you have to come up with creative ways of helping people, Jane," she said.
"But it's so...dishonest," I said.
"It's actually a kindness. You'll realize that soon enough. She can only understand so much, and she absolutely can't handle another child. She's out of control and I worry Ivy's starting to follow in her footsteps. Mary Ella's very pretty and Ivy's a little plainer and she's a big girl. Not overweight, but not lithe, like her sister."
I instantly related to Ivy. I knew what it was like to be the "plainer" sister.
"Ivy's still in school," Charlotte said, "and my goal--now your goal--will be to keep her there till she finishes. The main thing is to prevent her from having a baby of her own because that'll put an end to her education."
"Is Ivy...feebleminded, too?" I asked. I'd rarely used that word.
"Her IQ's about eighty," Charlotte said. "Low, but not feebleminded, which is a shame because it would make it easier to petition the Eugenics Board on her behalf." (p. 65-6)
Meanwhile, Ivy's world revolves around Henry Allen, the tobacco farmer's son. When they secretly rendezvous at night, they listen to the radio and look at books about California. Again, the reader sees life through Ivy's eyes and what's in store for her:
We went through all the pages. There was trees as big around as the tobacco barns and foggy cliffs called Big Sur and rocks in the ocean covered with seals and big black birds. There was actual palm trees. How could one place have so many different beautiful parts to it? I felt that ache in my chest again as he turned the pages. I wanted to step inside the book and live that beautiful life. Henry Allen said everybody in California was rich and had swimming pools in their own yards. I wished California was right next door to Grace County and I could walk over there tomorrow.
"Which place you want to live?" Henry Allen asked.
"Any of 'em."
"No, get serious. Let's pick our top place from these here pictures."
"Someplace by the water."
He turned the pages and I stopped him. "There, I said, pointing to a pretty little tree standing all alone, way out on a cliff above the ocean. "This place."
"Monterey," he said. "Okay, then. That's our destination. Monterey, California."
"What about you, though? Which place do you want to live at?"
"Wherever you are," he said.
My throat got tight. "What if I'm here, Henry Allen? What if I can't never leave?" Me and Henry Allen used to say we'd run off after we finished school, which meant three more years for me and two for him, but I couldn't see how I'd ever be able to leave Mary Ella or Nonnie or Baby William. Everything would fall to pieces without me. I felt sad all of a sudden. All me and Henry Allen had was the dream. So we didn't talk about the when no more. Just the where.
All day long, I worried about other people. Was Nonnie going to have to start getting shots for her sugar? Was Baby William ever going to say more words than "mama" or would he be one of them dumb goys other kids picked on? Would Mary Ella get herself in trouble again? Worry worry worry. But when I was with Henry Allen like I was right now, him slipping my nightgown over my head and pressing his body into mine, so gentle and sweet, I could forget about everything except him and me and our dreams about the future. (p. 31-32, 33)
Jane works hard at gaining Ivy's trust, but their tenuous relationship explodes when the Department of Public Welfare presses Jane into submitting a petition for Ivy's sterilization. When
Jane defies her employer's orders and bring Ivy into her own home, Ivy discovers Jane's secrets--thus changing Ivy's life too:
"Yes." It was her turn to put down a card, but she just stared at the cards in her hand like she wasn't really seeing them. She looked up at me. "I lost both my father and my sister," she said. "Just like you."
I couldn't believe it. I thought of her as a lady with a perfect life, especially now that I seen her house. I felt like anybody could look at me and know I lost too much. I never would of guessed she had, too....
"I looked at the picture another minute. Mrs. Forrester and her sister was both smiling. Both of them happy girls. Maybe happier than me and Mary Ella ever was. "You and me," I said, "we both go the same kind of hurt inside us."
She nodded, and suddenly, just like that, I knew I could trust her with my life. (p.290, 292)
Since I am writing historical fiction set in North Carolina in 1950, I was interested in how Chamberlain used vernacular to give her characters voice and make them true to the time period and setting. I work at understanding my character's core values and knowing what makes them tick. Ivy and Jane's core values ring clear throughout the book: people should be free to make choices that will effect them and their futures.
There is much that one can say about this outstanding novel. But if you are a writer and are familiar with Blake Snyder's beats from Save the Cat, you'll be impressed with the opening and final images. Like bookends, a third narrator, Brenna, brings the book full circle.
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