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. Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.
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As soon as you hear the premise of lesbians of different races falling in love during desegregation, you know that Lies We Tell Ourselves is going to be really fluffy and hilarious. NOT. Basically, it’s very obvious that Robin Talley has prepared a soul-punching. Lies We Tell Ourselves definitely hurt on more of a soul level than just a heart level. It’s one of those books that reminds you of the darkness in human nature and the horrible atrocities that humans commit towards one another for the worst reasons imaginable, though there aren’t really any good reasons to treat others this way in the first place. Robin Talley’s debut is one I’d recommend particularly to readers of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity and Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray.
Never in my life have I encountered so many racial slurs. Actually, I hadn’t heard a lot of the racial slurs in Lies We Tell Ourselves before. They’re really everywhere. I’m not the sort of person who’s bothered by swearing; in fact, I love well-deployed profanity, and I don’t tend to notice its use in fiction. This? I noticed. Racial slurs do upset me, precisely because of all of this history weighted behind them. Nothing about the way these words are leveraged by the characters in Lies We Tell Ourselves is okay. Robin Talley took a risk with this language, and I have no doubt the book will be challenged because of it, but she’s presenting an accurate portrayal of the time and there is no doubt that the message of the book is tolerance. All of this is to say that if you’re sensitive to such language to the degree you won’t be able to handle the book, I want you to be aware.
Much like when I read Rose Under Fire, I didn’t cry while reading the actual book, but now sitting here and trying to put my thoughts and feelings into words, the tears are trying to come. Everything that Sarah Dunbar and the other inaugural black students at Jefferson High School went through wrenches my heart. The racial slurs are honestly the best of it. There’s violence, spitting, sexual harassment, and the way the white students avoid being anywhere near the black ones without violence intended. The white kids skirt the black ones like they’re carrying some sort of disease. The way that Sarah and the others had to just calmly take this abuse, since they would be punished for stepping the slightest toe out of line, breaks my heart.
Talley alternates between the perspectives of two senior girls: Sarah Dunbar, a black integrator, and Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the most vocal anti-integrationists. Linda’s character is, of course, initially infuriating. I wanted to slap her silly much of the time. However, her perspective is so necessary, because you can see in her the way that inculcated ideas really do stick. Linda’s been raised with her father’s propaganda. Even when Sarah’s shooting her racist ideas down with logic over and over, it’s so hard for her to recognize that what she’s been taught since birth is a lie. The lies come so much more easily than the truth, as the chapter headings suggest (I love those chapter headings a lot). Lies We Tell Ourselves shows that change can and will come, but that we have to work for it everyday. It’s empowering and inspiring, on top of being made of pain.
The lesbian aspect actually isn’t all that overpowering. I love that it’s there of course, but the book is a historical story more than a romance. Lies We Tell Ourselves is not ABOUT the romance. What I love best about this is the way that Sarah and sometimes Linda will lose their train of thought staring at the other girl. There’s a real physical attraction and lustfulness in these girls, even though they don’t really understand the feelings they’re experiencing.
Those of you who know me well are probably aware that religion tends to annoy me in fiction. I’m glad for anything that helps other people be better people and feel better about themselves, but I don’t want it in my life or in my fiction if it’s going to preach to me. Lies We Tell Ourselves is full of prayer and hymns and references to God, but it never rubbed me the wrong way. Christianity is a huge part of these girl’s lives and definitely impacts their interactions with race and sexuality. I think part of why it works so well is the way Sarah is turning to the Bible to try to understand and making her own choices. Lies We Tell Ourselves is very much about doing what is right for you and not just following along with the larger community’s traditions blindly.
What Left Me Wanting More:
My only reservation with regards to Lies We Tell Ourselves is that my emotions were more due to the historical realities than to the characters themselves. Sarah’s wonderful and Linda improves vastly, but they never became real to me. Both felt rather distant from me. More importantly, their narrative voices sounded really similar. They weren’t hard to tell apart initially, but became more indistinguishable as Linda came to believe what Sarah does. Had the characterization been stronger, I would have been bawling through this whole book, even though I’m not a big crier, but I just wasn’t.
The Final Verdict:
So yeah, if you are into historical fiction that doesn’t flinch away from the painful realities or want to sugarcoat anything, then Robin Talley’s debut is for you. If you’re someone inclined to cry at books, then you should probably have some tissues at the ready.
I wanted to read this book before I was even finished reading the synopsis. I knew the events and the mindset of that period would be hard to read but I definitely wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be. It was the type of book and narration that can make a reader think. I thought the dual POV, with a girl on each side of segregation, was really smart. If it had just been in Sarah’s POV it would have been a lot easier to judge the other side and write them off as evil characters, but the addition of Linda’s POV showed how easily hatred and beliefs can be passed on, how hard it can be to overcome those beliefs, how standing up against bullies is never easy for anyone.
Sarah was such a strong character. The taunts, insults, abuse she had to take just to get from the sidewalk to the front doors of the school, all proof that no one wanted her and her fellow students to integrate, was horrifying and set the tone for how the rest of the school year would be for them. The determination she had just to make it into the school was amazing. Linda turned out to be a nice surprise. It would have been easy to fall into the good POV versus the evil POV trap but instead Linda had her own distinct voice, her own issues, and her slow growth throughout the book was great to see. The more time they were forced to spend together, the more they would frustrate each other, the more they would be on one another’s minds. It became easy to see why they would be drawn to one another.
There were a lot of minor characters, some more present than others, but they were all distinct enough so I never felt overwhelmed or forgot who was who. I particularly enjoyed Sarah’s sister Ruth, Linda’s friend Judy, and Sarah’s friends Chuck and Ennis.
While reading, it was impossible not to remember that even though the characters were fictional, the events were not. It made everything Sarah and her friends went through that much more horrifying. The book tackled a lot of hard topics, racism and sexuality being the two main ones, but also showed, mostly through Linda, that sexism was also a huge problem back then.
The chapter titles were really clever. Each one was a statement that was a lie. Lie#1, Lie#2, etc.
This is a book you read and you don’t forget.