Historical Fiction

Book Review – Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

Goodreads Synopsis:

After losing her parents, fifteen-year-old Ivy Hart is left to care for her grandmother, older sister and nephew as tenants on a small tobacco farm.  As she struggles with her grandmother’s aging, her sister’s mental illness and her own epilepsy, she realizes they might need more than she can give.

When Jane Forrester takes a position as Grace County’s newest social worker, she doesn’t realize just how much her help is needed.  She quickly becomes emotionally invested in her clients’ lives, causing tension with her boss and her new husband.  But as Jane is drawn in by the Hart women, she begins to discover the secrets of the small farm—secrets much darker than she would have guessed.  Soon, she must decide whether to take drastic action to help them, or risk losing the battle against everything she believes is wrong.

My Opinion:

Necessary Lies is an engaging, thought-provoking book. This story transported me back to the 1960’s, where many women did not work outside of the home and needed permission from their husbands to take birth control pills.

As interesting as it is to take a walk in the 1960’s and appreciate how far we have come, that’s not what this story is really about. This book does a fantastic job of shedding light on a program that I had never heard of – the Eugenics Sterilization Program. It is a program that social workers could petition to have their clients sterilized. If a social worker deemed a family to be unfit to take care of their children and/or feels they shouldn’t have any more due to the family’s financial strain, they would petition the board to have the female(s) sterilized. However, that alone was not enough. The social worker also had to show that the person to be sterilized meets one other qualification – mental retardation, mental illness, or epilepsy. Sometimes males were sterilized, but more often than not it was the females.

Rather than reviewing the story itself, which is quite good, I feel that this book lends itself to more of a discussion. In an effort to look at both sides I have included a few passages.

For sterilization:

“It’s the beautiful ones who are the real problem,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Beauty and mental retardation are a dangerous combination in a girl. They can be taken advantage of so easily. We need to help girls like Mary Ella.” (p 78)

“She’s fifteen. She’s an epileptic. She’s pregnant and she didn’t even understand that she could get pregnant. How long  do you think it will be before she’s pregnant again? It’s not up to her to make the decision. Her grandmother is her guardian and the decision is hers and the board’s. Not yours and not a fifteen-year-old girl’s.” (p 272)

Against sterilization:

“Please believe me, I’m on you side. I feel strongly that you have the right to decide if you should be sterilized or not. It might turn out to be the right choice for you, because of the epilepsy or because…just because. But I don’t like that the choice has been taken away from you.” (p 278)

“She is a sweet girl. But she’s poor. Very poor. So maybe her children won’t have the best chance at a future, but still…it should be her right to say yes or no to having more kids.” (p 304)

Did social workers and The Eugenics Board overstep?
Is it right or wrong to take away a person’s right to choose to continue to have more children even if they cannot afford to do so?
Is it right or wrong for a minor’s guardian to request that the minor be sterilized?
Were there other options that should have been considered?

I really enjoy stories that shed light on a topic that I previously didn’t know anything about and make me think. I had no idea a program like this existed in the US. North Carolina used this program from 1929-1975 and sterilized over seven thousand of its citizens – all “for the public good.” I will not soon forget this story nor the characters. If you have not read this book I highly encourage you to do so.

My Rating: 5/5

Genre: Historical Fiction

Series: None

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

 Publication Date: 9/3/2013

Pages: 335 (paperback)

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Happy Reading!

15 thoughts on “Book Review – Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

  1. I thought this was an excellent book and such an enlightening read. Like you, I had no idea that this programme was in existence in such relatively recent times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you enjoyed this so much, I remember feeling the same. Love how you structured your review. I understand that sometimes sterilization is necessary, but the way the characters in this book behaved… and they did it so often… 😦 It was heartbreaking

    Liked by 1 person

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