Book Club Review May 2014: Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

blog by Cindy Bushey and Tom DeLoe


Life is an education and truthfully if Zion’s readers were polled, they would probably admit that learning something new is one of the attractions that draws them to books.  That does not mean they always like what they learn.  In some cases, it can be downright disturbing.  This month’s novel by Diane Chamberlain falls in that category.  Necessary Lies is a story about racism, sexism and poverty in 1960’s North Carolina.  But more than that, it is a story of North Carolina’s eugenics program.  For those unfamiliar with the term, this was a movement to “weed out unfit” members of society through the use of sterilization.  The unfit included the feebleminded (defined as having an IQ of less than 70), the poor, epileptics, promiscuous persons, and other generally undesirable members of society.  Often it was accomplished without the knowledge of the supposedly unfit, and in fact was deliberately disguised.

Chamberlain’s story, fictional but factually based, is told through the eyes of two people:  Jane is a newly minted, idealistic social worker recently married to a young doctor who rose above his station in life to achieve his profession.  Ivy is a feisty, young girl of 15 mature beyond her years, taking care of her slower sister, her nephew and her sick grandmother.  These two women are thrown together into a relationship that runs the gamut from antagonistic to something approaching friendship all set against the backdrop of a racist and bureaucratic welfare system.  Their reaction to that system and their struggle to do what each believes is right becomes the focus of the book.

The author opens windows into the relationships between co-workers, between employers and employees, between husband and wife, between elders and children, between siblings, between lovers.  She throws the knotty moral issue of truth in the readers’ faces and asks is honesty always the best policy?  Is it kinder to shade the truth or lie in particular circumstances?  How do we make those choices and on what do we base our decisions?  Do life situations such as poverty or mental slowness mean our answers can be different in each case?  A disturbing book.

Faced with a reality of which they were unaware Zion’s readers had questions.  How could such a policy be instituted?  Why did it go on so long?  Apparently eugenics as a social tool was first used in North Carolina in 1907 and ended around 1975.  The practice was not restricted to this particular state; however other states had ceased its use much sooner that North Carolina.  During that period of time a total of approximately 7,800 residents of North Carolina were sterilized.  More questions:  is there a current policy for mentally handicapped people?  If it exists and demands that these people practice birth control, is it a fair policy?  While individual rights guaranteed by the constitution would seem to rule out a public policy, often parents of handicapped children are faced with difficult decisions.  Not too many years ago, parents of a severely handicapped girl chose surgery that would forever stunt her growth and incidentally render her infertile so that they could more easily care for her at home; it is referred to as the Ashley treatment and sparked ethical debates in the press.  Disturbing realities.  It is worth noting that there is presently a bill in the North Carolina legislature which aims to provide some form of compensation to those residents who were unknowingly sterilized.

Zion’s readers agreed that Chamberlain did an imaginative job of weaving the themes of eugenics, racism, poverty, and sexism into a very readable story.  Her characters were believable although the plot at times seemed a bit contrived.  Readers were left to wonder how Ivy and her boyfriend found the means to run off together.  We also were a bit skeptical of the rather neat ending.  The author’s use of first-person accounts to tell the story did not add any value to the novel in our readers’ opinions.  However, we all agreed the book was a good, quick read and that Ms. Chamberlain is an interesting, talented writer who weaves a solid story line to convey very complicated issues.  All 9 of our readers gave her one thumb up for her efforts.