‘The Kindest Lie’ Is A Tender Meditation On Family
Without diving into sentimentality, debut author Nancy Johnson examines the bonds that bring people together — and the lies that threaten to tear them apart
In Over Coffee, writer, reader, and haphazard reviewer Angela Lashbrook chats with authors about their recent books, and quizzes them on their hot breakfast takes.
It’s Election Night, 2008, and things are looking good for Ruth Tuttle. Barack Obama’s win looks more imminent by the hour, and Ruth, a Black chemical engineer, is surrounded by friends at the beautiful new Chicago home she recently purchased with her loving husband, Xavier.
Yet Ruth is filled with a sense of unease. Now that their life is about as in order (apparently) as is possible for a young couple — their careers are on the right track, they own a home, they’re young and healthy and financially secure — Xavier is pushing for kids. But Ruth has a secret: as a teenager, she gave birth to a baby that her grandmother, who raised her, promptly whisked away to unknown origins. Ruth, meanwhile, graduated high school and attended Yale, never seriously digging into what happened to her child. But now that she’s looking into having another, she feels the pressure to open up to Xavier about her teenage experience of motherhood — and finally confront her grandmother about what really happened to her baby.
The Kindest Lie is a beautifully-written page-turner, but I wasn’t turning the pages to discover what was going to happen next so much as I was desperate to dig deeper into the world, to get to know Ruth and Midnight, a troubled yet earnest white teenager who forms a unique bond with Ruth. Yes, I wanted to know the truth behind the secret that Ruth’s grandmother carried with her for decades, but I also simply wanted to see these characters through Ruth’s perspective, which is straightforward and clear-eyed and, most importantly, generous.
That’s what I found most remarkable about this novel: its generosity. There is very little cynicism to be found here. Almost every character is given the benefit of the doubt, their sometimes devastating mistakes revealed to be misguided, sure, but generally well-meaning. Johnson’s characters want what is best for each other, even if they don’t know exactly how to achieve that “best.”
I found this perspective refreshing. The news cycle is a relentless slog of misery, the characters of the world so often revealed to be acting in bad faith, driven by selfishness and myopia. This leaks into so many of the novels published today, where protagonists and villains alike are despicable and self-serving.
But in the world Johnson creates in her novel, even the lies are kind. It made me determined to look at my own life with more openness and compassion, to consider the people who’ve wronged me as people who, possibly, thought they were doing the right thing.
“There had been times over the years, especially after Papa’s death, that Ruth dreaded entering this house, hating everything from the slant to the smell of it. She had attached almost every grievance in her life to someone here. But on Christmas, everything came into focus more sharply and she saw them all with new eyes — their flaws and their beauty — and she chose to appreciate them because, in the end, they were family.”
Below, read my interview with Nancy Johnson about her career as a journalist, how she used meal scenes to depict love and tension between characters, and the breakfasts she enjoyed as a child at her family’s home in Indiana.
You worked for more than a decade as a TV journalist. How did your work as a journalist impact the writing of this novel?
I developed an intense curiosity about people — their interior lives, the way they speak, how they move through the world, and more. That came from interviewing bankers and bail bondsmen, factory workers and farmers. I bring those keen observation skills and attention to detail to the characters I craft. They come alive on the page because I dig deep to ask the right questions, developing a true understanding of who they are and how they came to be the way they are.
Also, working in television news trained me to compose for the ear. When I sit down to write, I read aloud the scenes from the day before. I hear the rhythm and know when I’m striking the right notes.
I love that descriptions of cooking, food, and meals abound in The Kindest Lie. The story begins at a dinner party, where characters drink martinis and eat Chicago’s best barbecue; characters in other scenes eat dark chocolate truffles, honey baked ham, blackberry preserves, fried chicken, and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Food even makes appearances when the character isn’t eating; for example, in one scene, a character is jumped while “the smell of grilled meat wafted from somebody’s cookout nearby.” What role do you see food and cooking playing in the story?
I’m not a foodie, but I love to eat! In my own family, when we have large gatherings during the holidays, we sit for hours at the dining room table talking, laughing, and sharing stories over and over. Food brings us together and offers meaningful connection. In The Kindest Lie, when Ruth returns to her hometown and greets Mama for the first time after being apart for many years, Mama immediately wants to know if she’s hungry. Then she whips up buttermilk fried chicken, greens, and corn muffins. That offer to feed her granddaughter is an act of love. At the same time, there’s a lot of tension between the two built up over years of secrets. As they’re eating, you can hear the empty spaces in their relationship with the only sound in the kitchen being their forks scraping the plates. In the span of that one scene, you can see how food illuminates connection and separation.
Although it begins and ends in Chicago, the bulk of the narrative takes place in Ganton, Indiana — a small town that’s economically struggled in recent years. Could you talk about the inspiration behind Ganton, Indiana? How did you go about crafting such a lived-in setting?
The Kindest Lie takes place in 2008 during the Great Recession. Economic ruin dominated people’s lives, particularly in small towns that depended on industry. The auto plant was the beating heart of Ganton, Indiana, and when it shuttered, Ruth’s brother, Eli, and Midnight’s father Butch Boyd were left jobless. That loss exacerbated racial tensions in the town and especially between these two men.
A few people told me they Googled “Ganton, Indiana” after reading my book and were frustrated that they couldn’t find it. Ganton is a fictitious town, but I love that it feels so real to readers. I grew up in Chicago and have never lived in a small town. However, I covered news in Kenosha, Wisconsin after the Chrysler plant closed and recall the struggles that city had to survive in the aftermath. Also, I have family in the steel mill town of Gary, Indiana. So, I know these kinds of towns and have met the good, hardworking people who live in them.
What’s a breakfast dish that reminds you of home (whatever “home” means to you)?
I love a big, hearty breakfast! Home for me growing up was often my visits to my Aunt Mary and Uncle Melvin’s home in Anderson, Indiana. My parents and other relatives would be there. For breakfast, we’d often have buttermilk biscuits, bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs, and hot applesauce. My stomach was full, and my heart, too, surrounded by the people I love most.