The year is 2008 and Barack Obama has just been elected as the first black president in US history. While the country is embroiled in a deep recession, Xavier and Ruth Tuttle are in a celebratory mood. Hope springs forth from this historic opportunity. That is the backdrop for Nancy Johnson’s excellent first novel, “The Kindest Lie.”
Ruth and Xavier, a young and successful black couple living in Chicago, are brimming with optimism. With President Obama about to take office and the promise of sweeping change in the nation, Xavier confronts Ruth about his wish to have a child. That triggers Ruth’s deepest secret. As a 17-year-old, she gave birth to a son who was mysteriously whisked away for adoption, engineered by the grandmother who raised Ruth and did not want to risk her scholarship to Yale.
When Ruth finally admits this news to Xavier, he feels betrayed. He is crushed and the news threatens to break up their marriage. Ruth decides she must return to her gritty hometown of Ganton, Indiana, and find her son.
Back in her hometown, Ruth discovers a changed town that reflects the miseries that have roiled the country. The auto factory that employed many in the town, including her grandfather and her brother, has closed and there are few good jobs to be found. During her first day back in town, Ruth meets Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is currently living with his grandmother, a friend of the woman who raised Ruth. Broken homes are everywhere.
As Ruth digs deeper into the identity of her son, she discovers deep secrets about her family and the pastor of her church. This story is just as timely in 2021 as in 2008, given the deep rifts over racial inequality that exploded last summer with the killing of George Floyd.
Johnson deftly ratchets up the tension when Ruth finds out the identity of her son and meets him for the first time. I won’t spoil the suspense, but at this point, the reader is turning the pages rapidly to find out what happens.
This is a gripping and powerful story of race, inequality, lies, abandonment, and identity and the pain that occurs when Ruth finally confronts deep truths about her live and herself.