Sunday, September 29, 2013
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain is a powerfully moving story set in rural North Carolina in 1960. It tells the story of a young woman, Jane, newly married to a pediatrician, who wants her own career helping others. She has recently graduated from Woman's College and gets a job as a social worker in the welfare office overseeing clients in a rural, poverty stricken county near Raleigh.
On the job she meets the Hart family: two teenage girls being raised by their grandmother in a small tenant house on a tobacco farm owned by Davison Gardiner. The younger of the two, Ivy, basically oversees the household as her aging grandmother has serious health issues and her feeble minded sister, Mary Ella, has a two-year old son that needs looking after.
Jane is warned by her superior, Charlotte Werkmann, not to get overly-invested or personally involved with her clients. The hallmark of good, effective social work among the county's population is to stay detached in order to keep the proper perspective on the needs of the children and families she serves.
Jane learns that North Carolina's "eugenics" program--the routine sterilization of not just those who are institutionalized, but any and all who fall below an IQ of 70, those who have epilepsy, or those who are deemed unlikely to ever get off the welfare rolls--has already sterilized Mary Ella without her knowledge or consent, and now have their sights on doing the same to younger sister, Ivy. The better she gets to know the Hart girls, the more outraged she becomes at the system which seems to offer these girls no choice.
What ensues is the story of lives forever changed by one person's stubborn challenge to a system which may or may not serve the best interests of those most vulnerable in society.
Some of the things in Chamberlain's book shock my sense of what it means to be a woman in 2013 in the United States. The fact that a doctor would not write a birth control prescription for her unless she had a signed permission note from her husband felt like a huge slap in the face. Yet, I have no doubt that thinking existed in the past. How far we have come!
It was also quite a shock to realize that involuntary sterilization of people occurred at such rates! I knew that it has happened to people who lived in institutions, such as the severely mentally handicapped and those in psychiatric care in the past. I assumed that these procedures always had the ok of nearest living relatives or guardians.
To discover in the Afterword that 7,000 people in the state of North Carolina alone, into the 1970s!, were being sterilized based on intelligence, their use of the welfare system, or even because they were epileptic remains shocking to say the least!
I read Necessary Lies in a matter of hours because it was such compelling reading. I felt myself getting entwined in the lives of the characters. I also really enjoyed Chamberlain's technique of writing every-other chapter from Jane and Ivy's perspectives.
I would highly recommend reading Necessary Lies. Chamberlain has done an outstanding job depicting the time and place and presenting us with characters you feel are standing right behind you, looking over your shoulder as you read. Get your book club to consider this one--you will find a plethora of things to discuss!!