Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
It’s finally time to integrate the all-white Jefferson High School in Virginia. Sarah is one of the first 10 black students to enroll. We experience the process of integration through her eyes, feeling the screaming insults, the racist chants, and the awful physical assaults that she, her younger sister, and other students endure. The daughter of a very vocal anti-integrationist, Linda, just happens to be in Sarah’s classes and they end up grouped on a school project. As their work progresses, their understanding of each other grows and feelings both girls never expected begin to bubble to the surface. We get a story of inner strength, personal belief, and inordinate courage in the face of racism, family, and abuse.
The electricity in this book is fitting for the type of relationships that develop – curiosity, confusion, and shame serve to make things realistic and to keep the heat from erupting. Even so, the few kisses and moments of openness are crucial and I wanted to cheer both girls when they let themselves feel.
There are a lot of moments to cheer for these girls and for the steel backbones they find when dealing with some seriously wrong behavior. I appreciate the different pictures of strength and choice the women in the book exhibit. They may be in high school, but both Sarah and Linda have already started chartering their own paths through life regardless of what family and society says and that is what feminism is all about. I didn’t like the comments about “that kind of girl,” but they totally fit the time period of the story.
The book is about integrating a high school in the South. That’s already pretty intense. There are also some social/economic class comments, but the main focus is on race. I appreciate that a lot of the comments and Sarah’s arguments with Linda are still (unfortunately) relevant for today. Some people may find the hater-oppressed falling in love a bit cliché, but the storytelling makes up for any staleness. And, oh yea, there’s the little fact that a white girl and a black girl find themselves dealing with strong, confusing emotions about one another.
EDIT: This review is from a white perspective. Some Black readers in the community have stated that this book is clearly written with white readers in mind and that a lot of what happens to Sarah is harmful and hurtful to Black readers (obviously it is also hurtful to Sarah, but there’s a way to show history in a way that is compassionate toward current readers). So, as we always try to be better as readers/bloggers, I wanted to point this out.
This book is amazing. It may be about a time 50 years gone, but it is still SO RELEVANT. Sarah and Linda bring a human touch to two very tough positions – one fighting for her humanity against blind hate and the other struggling to reconcile the ideas she grew up with and the truth in front of her. While it could have been bogged down in the politics and history, instead we got a seriously emotional, deep story about two very different girls finding their way along a confusing path. Sarah’s strength, brilliance, and beauty and Linda’s willingness to reevaluate her opinions and life choices are something we all should aspire to.
I love both main characters, but I think Ruth, Sarah’s little sister, takes the cake. She’s outspoken, determined, and courageous. Plus, while dealing with the stress of integration, she also has a hovering older sister that just will not back off and she deals with it all in the most teenagerly perfect way.
This book has a ton of great lines, but Sarah’s Mama has a moment that is just too relevant for today to miss:
“Now you listen and you listen good…Nobody’s going to let us be anything. We have just as much right to this world as they have, and we are not going to wait around for them to give us permission. If we have to prove it to them, we will, but I don’t ever want to hear you talk that way again.”
Is this worth a book hangover?
Absolutely. I read this in one day because it pulled me in and didn’t let go until Ruth gave me the final word. The story is compelling and the characters are honest and well crafted.
Fun Author Fact
Robin Talley was at the NOVA Teen Book Festival and she talked about the importance of true-to-character book covers. It was important to her that Lies We Tell Ourselves wasn’t white-washed – and she got inspiration for the cover from real archived year books!
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