Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves (Harlequin Teen)

About the Book:
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.

My Comments:
Interesting book.  I've heard it said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.  Robin Talley is using this story of school integration  in 1959 in a small Virginia town to reflect today's debate on gay rights.  The basic story is simple--after much court wrangling and much posturing by the Whites in power, a small handful of Negro students are starting at the local White high school.  They are abused by students and faculty alike and generally have a miserable year.  However, at some point Sarah is assigned to work with two White girls, who happen to be best friends, on a project.  Sarah and one of the girls develop crushes on each other and actually end up kissing.  Neither of them understand why they did it, both feel like it is wrong.  Neither seems to be able to forget it.  Both know they don't want others to know.  While the homosexual plot line is not a major part of the story, having it there at all changes this book from being one about a time in history to being one that says history is repeating itself.  

Linda is the daughter of the town's newspaper editor, and she is a writer for the school newspaper.  She sees herself as reasonable, not filled with hate.  She doesn't throw spitballs or physically threaten or abuse people, even Negros.  However, she buys hook, line and sinker into the idea that "they" are different from "us"' that "we" have the right not to associate with "them", that letting "them" into "our" schools will lower the standards.  As she gets to know Sarah she has to confront the fact that Sarah is smart, dignified, and has to deal with a lot of abuse.  Still, she doesn't understand why Sarah and her kind don't just stay on their end of town.  She is surprised when told how much better supplied her high school is than the high school for Negros.  She can't believe that Sarah's house is much like her own.  

Robin Talley is obviously trying to suggest that today's battle for gay rights is simply a repeat of the 1950's and 1960's battle for civil rights for African-Americans.  Characters put forth religious reasons for promoting segregation.  Taking things slowly and not pushing for too much change too fast is mentioned.  That Talley considers the situations to be parallel is obvious.

As a parent one thing that struck me was sacrifice of individual children for a greater good.  It seems obvious to me that the African-American teens in this book would have been better off staying in their school.  Sarah and her compatriots gave up a normal senior year of high school in which they would have been the campus leaders, in which they would have been prom queens, cheerleaders, debate team members and more to come to a school where they were clearly not wanted and where they were treated as second-class citizens.   However, without a first wave of students integrating schools there would not have been a second wave, and integration would never have come if the welfare of each individual student had been the determinant of whether she or he would be an integration leader.  Sarah and her sister did not choose to integrate that school--their parents decided that their children would do so.  As parents, what is our duty to our children--to put them in the situation that is best for them or to put them in the situation that is best for society as a whole?

The chapters are titled with the name of the character from whose point of view the action is viewed.  Sometimes I would lose track of who was who, especially between Linda and her friend Judy.  While Sarah was a strong character with a clearly defined personality and role, the separation between Linda and Judy didn't really become clear in my mind until almost the end of the book.  They were, in my mind, the White girls working on the project with Sarah.

I'd like to thank the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley.  You can preorder on Amazon now (Lies We Tell Ourselves (Harlequin Teen) ) ; the release date is September 30.  Grade:  B+


  1. I will be ordering this book, RAnn. It sounds like something right up my alley.

  2. We chose the "bad" high school for our kids. They were the minority in an Hispanic/ Native American school. My son thrived. He sought out the teachers who pushed all. His pals are mostly professors (physics, mathematics ) or in medicine. My daughter found the teachers who did not believe most were capable. She still struggled with school and most of her friends did not go on after high school.
    It was a hard lesson for us to learn. In the end it depends on the quality of the teacher in the integrated school. For our kids, even our daughter, the lesson of working with all was an important one. Neither have assumptions of good or bad when meeting someone.
    The book sounds like one I would enjoy reading.


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