We first meet Ruth Tuttle, a young Black woman, on election night in 2008. It is a night brimming with hope and expectation. Ruth, a successful Yale-educated engineer, is surrounded by an equally successful husband, Xavier, and their band of friends, as they celebrate the realization of an impossible dream: the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama. This moment of jubilation coincides with Xavier’s desire to start a family. But Ruth is haunted by memories of the baby boy she left behind. Where is he? Why did she allow him to be taken from her in the first place? “As proud and hopeful as she was,” the narrator explains, “Ruth had already crashed after the high of that night. All she could think about now was her baby, finding him and then . . . She didn’t know what then.”
What Ruth does know is that she has to leave Chicago and return home to the small factory town in Indiana that she has shunned for years. The change in location shifts the story into a layered, complex exploration of race and class. It is the height of the Great Recession and Ruth’s hometown is shot through with fear, grievance and a distinct lack of Obama-era hope. Johnson is particularly adept at drawing the dividing lines between African Americans and working-class Whites, while at the same time illuminating the things they share, including a struggle to survive amid layoffs and a dearth of opportunity in the economically devastated industrial Midwest.
The intersecting lives of Blacks and Whites — and their divergent understanding of each other — are rendered with care, particularly through Ruth’s relationship with Midnight, an 11-year-old White boy. Midnight is being raised primarily by his grandmother amid the emotional ruins of a troubled childhood. He is adrift and searching for his own sense of belonging.
That question of belonging — who we belong to, who belongs to us — opens the door for Johnson to explore what it means to be a mother. What it means to have given birth to a child but have no part in his life. Could Ruth have passed her son somewhere unknowingly? Would she even know him if she saw him? The boy’s absence and Ruth’s longing to experience life as his mother are ever present, no matter where she goes or what she encounters in her journey: “Every detail of this room reminded Ruth of all the small moments of mothering she’d missed with her son. His first tooth coming in. Stomachaches and scraped knees. The Little League games.”
As Ruth moves forward with her search for the boy she left behind, she must confront difficult, inconvenient truths of her family’s buried past at every turn, which adds another layer of suspense for the reader and focuses the spotlight on other key characters, such as Ruth’s careworn grandmother, who is the keeper of the most consequential of family secrets.
Beyond motherhood and secrets from the past, there is the question of Ruth’s marriage. Xavier is blindsided by the news that she has a child. While Johnson notes his dismay and the strain on their marriage in the early part of the narrative, Ruth’s relationship with her husband is not examined in sufficient depth as the novel unfolds. The reader is left to wonder what truly binds the couple together. Additionally, there is a sort of no-questions-asked oddness during Ruth’s reappearance at home in Indiana after so many years away. One would expect the writer to take a bit more time to deal with the emotions surrounding that surprise return.
But these quibbles do not take away from the overall narrative. It is a tale of how lies and omissions can shape and warp us. It is a story about reconciliation, set against a backdrop of racism and resentments. But more than anything, it is a meditation on family and forgiveness.
Anissa Gray is a journalist and the author of the novel “The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.”
The Kindest Lie
By Nancy Johnson
William Morrow. 336 pp. $27. 99