Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Genre: YA Historical/LGBT
Received for review from the publisher
Summary (from Goodreads)
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
I find it both horrendous that events as those depicted in this novel happened in living memory, but also a reminder that we’ve made incredible progress towards acceptance and freedom in the past half a century. We may be far from perfect, but the British and American public are fortunate to live in countries that are vastly changed for the better.
Talley doesn’t hold back in her presentation of desegregation – the first few chapters are a relentless assault of abuse, violence, and ill-treatment of Sarah and her friends by their white peers. Worse are the reactions of the staff, who at best turn a blind eye, at worst actively punish the black pupils in their classes for things that are not their fault.
Even worse in some ways is Sarah’s parents’ naivety – they reprimand their daughter for receiving detention after detention, telling her she should be setting an example. These people who’ve challenged their children to be pioneers without understanding exactly what that means. The quiet bravery of Sarah and her sister Ruth is remarkable – all the more so because it’s utterly convincing. There were almost certainly a few Sarahs in the real battle for integration of schools.
The choice to have Sarah and Linda also fighting with their burgeoning feelings for each other also helps to bring in a more modern context. With laws regarding gay marriage being very much part of the public conscience at the moment, I think young people reading this – who have a lot of difficulty imagining a time where black people were treated as hideously as they were in the 1950s, I know, I’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird for four years – will better empathise with and understand the struggles of the 1950s because of their innate, cultural understanding of gay rights.
Sarah’s inner battle with her own feelings is particularly emotive, as her struggle to reconcile her religious beliefs with her ‘sinful’ desires echoes much of the language used by those who fight against equal marriage rights. Her gradual realisation that God loves her the way she is, is an emotional journey that I hope will bring a few readers to the same conclusion.
But perhaps the best character and the best journey is that taken by Linda. Her journey from angry segregationist to a girl who defies her classmates and her father is a difficult one to read – largely because you know she doesn’t believe a word she says, but also understand why she says it. It doesn’t take long for the allusions about Linda’s father to build up a terrible picture, and that combined with the peer pressure of Linda’s classmates does leave you questioning whether, in her position, you would have behaved any less terribly. You find yourself mentally urging her to do the right thing, disappointed when she doesn’t, but ultimately wondering if you could have been as brave and as strong as she needs to be.
Through Linda, Talley reminds us of the terrible power of silence, and the sort of strength it takes to speak out. And it’s a reminder to those of us in the majority like Linda, that we have our own part to play in battles for equality and Human Rights. It’s easy to sit back and let things happen when it isn’t directly impacting you, but if everyone did that, nothing would ever change. Sarah and her friends have to be brave in being the first black children to attend white school; the white pupils have to be brave to defy their friends and cultural expectation, to accept and embrace the change.
Stories like Lies We Tell Ourselves are important, because they bring these historical events to life, reminding us the cost of complacency when it comes to big, important things like Human Rights. There are countries in the world today whose people live in not dissimilar conditions to 1950s America, people who for reasons of race or religion are treated as inferior to others and we shouldn’t forget their struggles. And within our own borders there are issues that impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Lies We Tell Ourselves puts us inside one of those issues and the viewpoints of both sides, challenging us to change our views, be more empathic and speak out when it counts.