Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen, 30 September 2014)
Robin Talley mentions in her author’s note at the end that this book was “painful to write”. And so it must have been–it was painful to read, too, but in a good way. In an important way.
It is February 1959 in Virginia, and Jefferson High School is being desegregated. Sarah Dunbar, a black girl in her senior year, starts to attend Jefferson, along with nine other students from her black-only school. They’re greeted with shouts and spitballs and worse. But Sarah meets a white girl called Linda Hairston, and though Linda opposes integration like the rest, Sarah recognises something in her that seems different, something that seems like potential for change. As they’re forced to work together on a school project, they start to get to know each other and realise that maybe some of the things they’ve believed all their lives aren’t so true after all.
Parts of the book were harrowing to read, especially the very beginning, when you’re thrown straight into the morning of the first day of integration at Jefferson, as Sarah and the other black students arrive at the school. Immediately they hear horrifying insults screamed at them. I was so terrified throughout the whole book that something awful would happen to one of the black characters, that they would get heavily injured or killed. I’m not going to say whether this does happen in the book, but obviously it’s not an unrealistic thing to happen. Even looking at society now, we know it’s not unrealistic for innocent black people to be killed for no reason. We know it still happens with terrifying frequency.
So I was scared. The book was so effective in creating that atmosphere of fear. I felt sick and disgusted that people could be so hateful. And I admired the black students so much. For being so incredibly brave and going to this school day after day when this is what they’re faced with. Because there’s a bigger picture. Because someone has to do this, so that the future can be better for everyone else.
The book alternates between Sarah and Linda’s POVs. They’re both very brave people in their own ways. Sarah’s POV was the one I preferred, because it was definitely harder to deal with all of Linda’s confusion about racism and the jumbled thoughts of hate and doubt in her mind, especially at the beginning when she didn’t really know any better yet.
Sarah also had more awareness of her own sexuality from the outset, since she already knew that girls made her feel something she thought she shouldn’t, even before she met Linda, and this is always interesting for me to read as a queer person, how this part of her identity affects her. I love how Sarah’s thoughts about her race interact with her thoughts about her sexuality. There was a really interesting part of the novel, when she thinks about the Bible and how her dad tells her that white people have used it to justify their treatment of black people, and she comes to some realisations about how this relates to what the Bible tells her about homosexuality.
I have to say, I was ridiculously frustrated by Linda’s behaviour at many points in the book, but I also know that it’s understandable for her to act the way she does. She’s been brought up her whole life believing that black people are inferior and that desegregation shouldn’t happen. Her father writes for the town paper as one of the most vocal opponents of school integration. Her father is also abusive. The only time he ever really talks to Linda or even notices her is when he’s feeding her his vehement opinions about how integration is wrong. She grows up desiring his approval as a child naturally does, and hating him at the same time. Plus, she’s a popular girl in a school where she herself would come under fire for showing any sign of friendliness towards a black person. So of course it’s understandable that every time Linda seems to take one step closer to being nice to the black characters, she takes two steps back again. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating, and sometimes it’s hard for me to read all of her hateful words and actions and understand why the hell Sarah actually likes her.
This diminishes the romance somewhat for me. I mean, yes, Linda does show her own courage and independent thinking, and Sarah is right when she sees that potential for change in her. And rationally I know that Linda has her reasons for behaving the way she does. But still. I get so angry at Linda all the time in this book. Just as Sarah does, really. But it was admittedly fascinating to see them argue and talk to each other and how much they both blazed with life when they were together.
I absolutely adored Ruth, Sarah’s little sister and a freshman who attends Jefferson with Sarah. She has a different sort of strength to Sarah, and is much more outspoken and defiant. I loved seeing the ways she encouraged and inspired Sarah in the book. I was so happy to see that she got her very own POV chapter at the end! Which was SO MARVELLOUS. Oh god, I want a whole novel in Ruth’s voice. She just has this curiosity and this sharp bite to her voice that was such a delight to read.
I did think the ending was perhaps a little rushed and everything seemed too easy after all the difficulties that came beforehand. There were still some issues that I would’ve liked to see the author address more fully and give some sort of closure to, particularly about Linda’s dad. But other than that, the ending was wonderful and full of hope, and it’s a gripping and emotional book that really demonstrates the importance of activism and of personal, individual courage in ordinary lives.
I think it’s amazing that Talley wrote this book, about a black girl and a white girl falling in love with each other in 1959 in the South. It was an important story to tell, and Talley told it extraordinarily well. This is definitely a book I’ll be trying to make everyone read.
Note: The copy that I read was an advance uncorrected proof.