Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Published: September 30, 2014, Harlequin Teen
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction, LGBT
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
I can’t shake the feeling someone’s been lying to me all along. Because they don’t think I’m smart enough to understand the truth.
I’ve had enough.
It’s time I figured out the truth for myself.
Along with a few other students considered to be the crème de la crème of Johns, the all-black high school for Davisburg, Virginia, Sarah Dunbar is enrolled to attend her senior year at Jefferson, the previously all-white high school. No one thought that school integration would be easy, as the white people of Davisburg have spent five years fighting against the Supreme Court’s desegregation laws. Sarah, her younger sister Ruth, and a few of their friends know that desegregation is going to be tough and potentially dangerous, but that knowledge doesn’t prevent them from supporting the NAACP’s cause, and fighting for the right to be a part of the first school integration in Virginia.
But there’s a big difference between taking a stance on an issue on a theoretical basis and then enduring the consequences of that stance on a very real level.
Among the more vocal of the desegregation opponents is the editor of the town’s local newspaper, who happens to be the father of Linda Hairston, a senior of Jefferson High. Linda knows that integration is wrong, because that’s all she’s been told her entire life. And nothing in her life thus far has forced her to think otherwise.
But witnessing the atrocities that the black students endure from her fellow classmates and becoming acquainted with Sarah makes Linda begin to question her firmly entrenched beliefs.
With the overwhelming amount of past, future, and present books placed before us as readers, sometimes it can be difficult to take a step back and really pause to reflect on our reading choices. To really savor the story at hand before moving on to the next one, and the one after that. I’ve noticed it’s a problem that I’ve experienced in particular over the past few years; I actually started writing reviews as a way to slow down and really reflect on stories read (while still making decent progress in my ever-growing to-be-read pile). Sometimes, however, there are those books that demand to be processed long after the final page is turned. Lies We Tell Ourselves is one such book.
Told through dual narration, each chapter is preceded by a lie that each protagonist has been told from their opposing sides of the desegregation battle. But what makes this novel all the more interesting, all the more relatable, is that neither Sarah nor Linda are die hard proponents of their belief systems. Sarah certainly empathizes with the plight of her fellow African Americans and also acknowledges the potential benefits to her education, should she attend Jefferson. But that doesn’t mean that she’s immune to doubts, that at times she can’t help but wonder if perhaps now isn’t the right time for integration, or that she isn’t the right person to help lead it. This is different than saying that she doesn’t believe in the practice of desegregation at all; Sarah is not afraid to admit the evils that come from treating others as inferior. It is through the complexity of Sarah’s conflicting emotions with regard to the desegregation movement that her character really shines and takes on a level of realism.
While Sarah is not the doubt-free proponent of desegregation, neither is Linda the paragon of Southern white segregationists in the 1950s. She, too, struggles with her attitude towards integration. As with Sarah, Linda knows what’s expected of her, and her society’s expectations have been the primary influence on her behavior until the events of the novel.
Predictably, both characters see their foundations of belief shaken many times throughout the course of the novel. By depicting neither character as an extremist in her beliefs - absolutely unwilling to see the other side as anything but wrong - Sarah and Linda are given a degree of believability and empathy that might have been impossible to achieve otherwise. To Talley’s credit, nearly all of the secondary characters are also fleshed out to such a degree that all their actions ring true.
This is not to say that the actions and beliefs of the majority of white people are excusable. The atrocities that Sarah and her former Johns classmates receive at the hands of their Jefferson peers and teachers, and from the community at large, is painful and terrible to behold. It’s inexcusable.
And Talley never attempts to make the ordeals that Sarah and the other black students suffer be portrayed as anything but wrong. It this reader’s opinion that Linda’s section was not added to this novel simply as a way to appease white readers; rather, through Linda readers are given another side of the story that’s not better or worse, but provides a more complete picture. The racial conflicts addressed here deserve to be acknowledged and remembered, and Talley does so with great tact and sincerity.
Lies We Tell Ourselves is not simply about civil rights; it also touches on gay rights. When I first heard about the LGBT subtext present, I was a bit dismayed. Racism and homosexuality is a lot to handle in one novel. Without going into too much detail here, I do think that the story could have been just as strong without the inclusion of a secondary focus on gay rights. It is handled very well within the novel, but it never reaches quite the same level of believability or urgency as the focus on desegregation does. But this is simply my opinion.
Still, Lies We Tell Ourselves is very, very good. Great, really. It’s the sort of story that needs to be read and discussed. Just try to read this and not feel some empathy for the two protagonists. I dare you.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Disclaimer: I received this review copy from Netgalley on behalf of the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion.