Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Jefferson High School, Davisburg, Virginia. 1959.
In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, it’s been two years since the Supreme Court said all schools must integrate. The people in Davisburg have done everything they can to resist this order, including entirely shutting down their schools for months.
High school senior Sarah Dunbar is about to make history. She is one of ten black students who will begin attending an all-white school. Sarah and the other students arrive to find a large crowd of angry white people screaming at them, bellowing hateful words, and spitting at them. Sarah knew integration was going to be hard, but she had no idea it was going to be terrible. Day after day, Sarah and her friends are bullied, harassed, threatened, and attacked. The teachers don’t make it any better, choosing to ignore the way the white teenagers are acting, and usually being overtly racist and hateful themselves. Sarah, an excellent student who was on the college prep track at her old school and will attend Howard in the fall, is placed in remedial classes. In fact, all of the black students are in remedial classes, because of the assumption by the administration that the black students are intellectually inferior and have no place in more challenging classes. Through it all, Sarah is determined to hold her head high. She knows the movement is counting on her, that she can’t let it show that people are hurting her. She’s been told to look straight ahead, not talk back, not be caught alone, and just keep walking.
One of the most outspoken white students is Linda Hairston, who writes editorials championing segregation for the school newspaper. Linda mostly just mimics everything she’s heard her father, who is the editor of the local paper, say. When Linda and Sarah (along with Linda’s friend Judy) get paired up to work on a class project, Sarah begins taking Linda to task on her ideas and behavior. Unafraid to be outspoken, Sarah accuses her of not thinking for herself, suggests that deep down she doesn’t really share these same viciously hateful feelings that her father espouses. Sarah isn’t wrong. Suddenly, Linda is starting to feel shameful about the thoughts she’s been having about integration. She realizes she sort of likes and admires Sarah, but justifies these feelings by thinking that Sarah is special, that she’s better than the rest of “her people.” I don’t think characters need to be likeable or have redeeming qualities, but I will say that I initially balked at the narrative switch to Linda taking over the story. Talley does a fantastic job of getting in the mind of this young woman and letting her be hateful, ignorant, uncertain, curious, and complicated.
A large portion of the book is dedicated to another piece of this plot: Linda and Sarah’s growing attraction to each other. Sarah gives many hints early on that she’s been struggling with her sexuality. When she first notices Linda, she reminds herself that she’s supposed to force those feelings down, to act normal. When she thinks about kissing, she’s worried she’ll think the wrong things. Meanwhile, Linda has been spending a lot of time thinking about Sarah. But they’re just thoughts Anyway, Linda will marry Jack, her 22-year-old boyfriend, as soon as high school is done, escape her father’s house, and everything will be fine. Or at least that what she keeps telling herself, until she realizes that she can’t keep lying. She thinks, “I want Sarah the way I’m supposed to want Jack.” Both girls can only fool themselves for so long. When Sarah kisses Linda, their worlds break open. Suddenly, Linda and Sarah are questioning everything: their feelings for each other, their futures, the school integration, even the expectations from their families.
To call this novel powerful is an understatement. Told in alternate narration, the views Sarah and Linda give of this time in history are poignant. The unrelenting racism and violence is difficult to read, which is hardly surprising. The story is just as much Linda’s as it is Sarah’s. Both extremely stubborn girls confront their many preconceived notions. Both learn, change, and grow. Neither seems there simply to “teach” the other about the opposing side. Talley does an excellent job of showing how two young women do what they think they are supposed to do and act how they think they are supposed to act, only to discover that carving out their own futures might be possible. This book is an essential read. Talley tackles a lot in this novel, combining history, diversity, intersectionality, GLBTQ characters, family dynamics, and so much more. In less skilled hands, it would have been overwhelming. In Talley’s hands, it’s just masterfully knit together and moving.
An author’s note about this era in history and the research Talley did for her writing is appended, as is a section of Common Core-aligned questions for discussion.
Publication date: 9/30/2014
Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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