One issue facing women in the US today is related to reproductive rights – the ability for women to decide what to do with their own bodies. This is not a new issue for women, and I was shocked to learn that not too long ago, states reserved the right to sterilize women, often against their will. These women were almost always poor, black, or both, their fates decided by social workers and a board made up of privileged men. In Necessary Lies, Diane Chamberlain explores the eugenics program, practiced in many states but continued in North Carolina until the early 70s.
Jane Forrester is newly married to a pediatrician, and while married well-off women didn’t usually work in the 1960s, especially in the south, she is hired as a social worker in Grace County, North Carolina, an area comprised of tobacco farms and country roads. Her husband disapproves of her working at all, let alone with the poor and uneducated, preferring her to join the Junior League and spend her time with the other country club wives. Jane is still grieving the death of her father and younger sister in a car accident a few years earlier, and her supervisor wonders if she’s too tender-hearted for the job.
One family Jane meets during her orientation is the Harts, a poor family living on a tobacco farm. 15-year-old Ivy Hart bears the responsibility of taking care of her family — older sister Mary Ella, who is beautiful but feeble minded, Mary Ella’s 2 year old son Baby William, who also shows signs of mental retardation and doesn’t receive the supervision he requires, and grandmother Nonnie, who has raised the girls as well as she can after they have lost both of their parents but has a sweet tooth that she can’t curb, ignoring her diabetes.
Mary Ella bears a striking resemblance to the sister Jane has lost and she has difficulty keeping her emotions out of her job. She’s horrified to learn of the eugenics program and the Department of Welfare’s intention to sterilize Ivy with Nonnie’s permission, but her hands are tied and must file the petition herself. As Jane gets more involved in Ivy’s situation, she grows further apart from her new husband and becomes in danger of losing her job. Jane ignores those who call her “high and mighty” and sticks to her decision to tell the truth, and must live with the repercussions of that decision.
With the story’s narration switching between Jane and Ivy, the reader gets a full understanding of their fears and motivations. Secondary characters are not as multi-dimensional, which is to be expected when it’s not their story being told, yet through Jane’s and Ivy’s own observations and discussions with others, they do not fall flat either.
Notes on the audiobook: Necessary Lies audiobook alternates between Ivy and Jane, and the narrator does a convincing job of voicing both backwoods Ivy and city girl Jane. As I’ve mentioned one of my favorite things about audiobooks is they often include interviews with the author that do not appear in the print copy, and I especially enjoyed hearing Diane Chamberlain’s interview. She discusses her own past career as a social worker, her research into the eugenics program and life on a tobacco farm, and her first foray into historical fiction.