Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (review copy) - It's 1959. The battle for civil rights is raging. And it's Sarah Dunbar's first day of school, as one of the first black students at the previously all-white Jefferson High. No one wants Sarah there. Not the Governor. Not the teachers. And certainly not the students – especially Linda Hairston, daughter of the town’s most ardent segregationist. Sarah and Linda have every reason to despise each other. But as a school project forces them to spend time together, the less their differences seem to matter. And Sarah and Linda start to feel something they've never felt before. Something they're both determined ignore. Because it's one thing to be frightened by the world around you - and another thing altogether when you're terrified of what you feel inside. From Goodreads
I had heard so much praise about Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, that there was no way I was going to miss out on what sounded like a really amazing story. The praise was well earned; this book is just fantastic!
It's 1959, and black students are integrating into Jefferson High School for the first time. Sarah Dunbar is one of the first to step through the school doors, and, along with the others, is met by the angry white students of the school, hurling abuse. The next several months are hard for the students as they receive abuse and violence every day. But Sarah hopes to change at least one person's mind; Linda Hairston, daughter of one of the leading men against desegregation. Linda believes the black students are ruining the Southern way of life, that black and white people were meant to be segregated, but finds herself horrified by the treatment of the black students at the hands of her fellow white students. The two girls soon realise they're feeling things for each other, something that might be worse than black students at a white school.
Lies We Tell Ourselves is an absolutely incredible story! Reminded me of the movie The Butler, and like The Butler, made me feel sick and ashamed of the things we white people did to black people. Sarah is unbelievable. The things she and the other black students have to deal with on a daily basis is unreal, yet she always walks tall. I seriously don't think I could hack having things thrown at me, being spat on, and having vicious insults shouted at me all day - especially as the teachers ignore it all. It's absolutely heartbreaking to see all these students fall prey to such abuse, and knowing there's nothing anyone can really do about it, not if they want to survive - because lives are most definitely on the line. Sarah has such courage and strength in the face of it all; even when she's scared and wants to run, she confronts it head on. Her younger sister Ruth is just brilliant too; she can't always keep quiet and will respond to the taunts, which is so dangerous. She has some serious chutzpah!
Linda doesn't hurl insults or spitballs. For her, although she doesn't like the black people who have integrated into her school, it's less about racism and more about disrupting their way of life, the way things have always been. She feels they should have had more time to adapt and prepare, rather than have the court ruling on integration forced on them, having the black pupils "forcing" their way into her school. Linda's a smart girl, which makes it worse because of her flawed logic. She's wrong, but her thoughts and opinions go further than, "I don't like you because you're different." Her views made me so angry, it was so frustrating to read her thinking these things and just not getting it. It scared me to think about who I would be if I had lived back then, brought up with those ideals. I don't like to think of it. But it's awesome to see Linda's growth over the course of the story, how her arguments with Sarah get her thinking, really thinking, for herself rather than parroting everything she has been taught.
The LGBTQ aspect of the story was interesting. It's a big part of the story, a huge part, but is secondary to the whole desegregation of Jefferson High. Feelings for members of the same sex is wrong in the eyes of God. It's wrong just to have feelings for other girls, let alone girl who is also a person of colour. Seeing the feelings between the two grow is lovely; it's really sweet and innocent, but not so great to see them doubting themselves. It's less about the two of them and more about Sarah and Linda working out their individual identities at a time when so much is "wrong".
A brave, powerful, and emotional story, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a fantastic debut novel, and Robin Talley is now one of my automatic must-read authors! You must read this book!
ETA: Please read this thread on Twitter from author Jay Coles which discusses how Lies We Tell Ourselves is problematic, which I was unaware of due to my privilege.
Thank you to Mira Ink for the review copy.
Published: 3rd October 2014
Publisher: Mira Ink
Robin Talley's Website