Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Historical Fiction; Young Adult
Origins: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: 30 September 2014
Bottom Line: Fascinating but disappointing in the direction the story takes
“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.”
Thoughts: History books abound with cursory details about desegregation, the legal battles that occurred all over the South after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and the crowds that surrounded each school on that first fateful day of a desegregated school year. What history books do not share is what life was like for those pioneering students once the media left and the cameras were turned off. Lies We Tell Ourselves fills this gap with shocking clarity.
Told from opposing viewpoints, the story starts from the first day of school until graduation day. Both Sarah and Linda are seniors just trying to make the most of their last year of school, even though their experiences are anything but similar. While Linda rails against the loss of certain senior activities, like the prom, and how disruptive these new students are to her school experience, Sarah deals with daily fear of violence, a constant barrage of curses hurled her way, and other indignities at every turn. Once at the top of her class, she now faces teachers who are surprised she can read. The two girls’ experiences are shocking in their honesty and brutal in the picture of humanity they present. It is as chilling a portrait of the civil rights movement as one will ever find.
If the story focused on just Sarah’s and Linda’s experiences, the story would be outstanding. Instead, Ms. Talley includes the complexity of sexual orientation. This could be its own separate novel and ultimately should be because it diminishes the impact of the civil rights lessons to learn. Sarah’s daily experiences in Jefferson High School are so visceral, so ugly, and so terrifying that her story does not need the added torment of sexual identity in the 1950s. Similarly, watching Linda struggle with the life-long prejudices she’s always heard versus what she observes with her own eyes is compelling reading. The story is powerful on its own without any additional identity crises.
If one ignores the secondary story, the main plot of Lies We Tell Ourselves is an outstanding example of historical fiction. It tells the intense story of two girls caught in the middle of the civil rights movement, each one a pawn in the adult game of racial equality. Sarah and Linda are intriguing as they face their fears and discover their own opinions about these high-stakes issues. Vibrant and honest as only the young truly are, their voices are powerful in their lost innocence. Unfortunately, the secondary plot becomes an integral part of Linda and Sarah’s self-identity, and the story moves from realistic to exaggerated. This move trivializes the racial issues at the heart of the story and proves to be a distraction for readers. Given how important the history lesson and just how impactful the racial tension are, readers will find themselves disappointed that the focus shifts as much as it does.