Robin Talley: Lies We Tell Ourselves

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.

I have SO many feelings about this book. And that makes sense–it’s a book written to evoke extremely strong feelings. It’s a book I may need to sit on for a few days before I fully comprehend everything I just read. Which means by the time you read this, I will have edited this review 100 times at least.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is written in dual POV:  Sarah, a senior POC moving to a previously whites-only school that is being desegregated; and Linda, a white Southern Belle who is diabolically opposed to desegregation. These two spiral around each other tighter and tighter as the year goes on.

My feelings on this book are so much like reading Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. Dual POV (except SGT had three). One white, one POC; written by a white author. Why is this necessary? Tolley very obviously did her research here. But that is not enough. There is no way a white author could ever put herself in the true voice of a POC in the middle of desegregation. There’s so much pain and abuse and complicated human experience that a white person–ie myself trying to write this review–could absolutely never appropriately put into words. This is why Own Voices is crucial.

In fact I actually had this on my Own Voices list. It is. Sort of. But for a completely different reason. And so I would very much hesitate to call this OV in the future–the author is white, and this is a story about the Civil Rights Movement.

There is an obscene amount of racist slurs in Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part of my brain (that old part that hadn’t been exposed to diversity and humanity still pops up way too often) says “Well, Haley, this is a book about desegregation in Virginia. Of COURSE there are going to be racial slurs. Of COURSE people are going to do hateful, horrible things.” I’m also disgusted, ashamed, and I want to protect all of my friends from what is said here.

This is also the epitome of the Oppressor/Oppressed romance trope. It’s gross. Linda is a racist. Even when she “changes her mind” she still only changes her mind about Sarah, not desegregation. Sarah is different, she’s special. And Sarah is constantly having to convince herself that Linda has changed, or that she can be changed, right up until the end of the story. It’s just so disgustingly problematic.

There are some good things about this book:  Queer characters, a diverse cast of POC, girls standing up to abusive parents–really just ladies figuring out what they want in general and going for it. Unfortunately all that is overshadowed by the major problems that this book has. I am really just striking out lately, it seems.

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