From 1929 until 1975, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 of its citizens, targeting inmates in mental institutions, epileptics and others whose sterilization was considered “for the public good.” Diane Chamberlain has based her latest novel on this controversial procedure, the Eugenics Sterilization Program.
It is 1960, and Jane Forrester has just been hired as a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare and is newly married to Robert, a pediatrician. They live in a wealthy neighborhood in Raleigh.
Ivy Hart is a 15-year-old who lives in a small tenant house on a tobacco farm in rural Grace County. Her father died when she was small; her mother was committed to a mental hospital; and her older sister, Mary Ella, left school at 14 when she became pregnant with baby William. Mary Ella, labeled “feebleminded,” has been sterilized without her knowledge, told she was hospitalized for an appendectomy.
In the alternating voices of Jane and Ivy, we learn how Jane becomes immersed in the Hart family’s dire circumstances, raising doubts in the minds of both her boss and her husband that she’s tough enough for the job. Robert is embarrassed by the fact that Jane is working rather than fitting into the Junior League role embraced by the wives of his colleagues, but he’s especially bothered by her sincere attachment to these poor families, which is starting to make her question the Eugenics Department’s plans for the Harts.
Chamberlain weaves an element of suspense throughout this emotional story as these differing views eventually collide in a powerful denouement. Necessary Lies is a poignant and perceptive novel zeroing in on a hidden social issue—reminiscent of the work of Jodi Picoult and A. Manette Ansay.