Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to integrate the all-white Jefferson High School in 1959 Virginia.  Although she was an honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes at this new high school, and she is tormented daily by the white students.  She meets Linda Hairston, the daughter of one of the most vocal anti-integrationists and the editor of the local white paper.  She has been taught her whole life that “separate but equal” is the natural way of things.  When the two girls are forced to work together on a school project, they’re forced to confront truths about race and racism and their real feelings about each other.

Talley’s excellent debut novel is pretty much the epitome of required reading.  This knockout of a novel combines the complex issues of race, sexual orientation, and the politics of power and weaves a story that is both memorable and compelling.  With vivid characters, authentic attention to historical detail, and a message that never feels heavy-handed, Talley is an author to watch.

Credit is due to Talley’s ability as a writer to take a whole host of issues and never let them crowd or take over the story.  At its core, this is a story about two girls who are struggling with their respective situations.  Both girls have problems they must face and obstacles they have to overcome.  Despite the fact that at the onset of the story, they each feel they could never understand the other, this proves to be patently untrue.

Good characterization makes this novel work on multiple levels.  Both Sarah and Linda are given their own voices and each girl has real motivations for acting and thinking the way she does.  Neither girl is there to simply “teach” a lesson to the other one.  Their chemistry and their interactions with one another never feel forced.  This is an excellent example of how to allow characters grow and change.

Despite the fact that Talley’s novel is firmly rooted in the past, in the very true, very disturbing events of desegregation in the late 50s and 60s, there’s a timelessness to the issues her characters face.  Both girls are struggling with their sexual identities, with the politics of power and the systemic institutionalized racism they experience on a daily basis.  While we have made some progress in the fifty-odd years since schools were forced to desegregate, we still have a long way to go.  Talley’s book illustrates that, providing readers no easy answers but still allowing the book to have a hopeful, realistic conclusion.

This is a must-read, must-stock title.  It fits in nicely with lessons about integration and the “massive resistance” movement, but it also works as a piece of stellar, sometimes brutal fiction.  This is definitely one of the best books of 2014.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

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