Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

Sarah Dunbar, her sister Ruth, and a handful of other black students are about to break new ground - they will be the first black students to attend Jefferson High School in Virginia.  The law and the courts may be on their side, but to the students and parents of Jefferson High School desegregation is wrong and must be stopped by whatever means necessary.  The first day of school is full of screaming and yelling, and small and not so small acts of violence follow.  The belief in segregation runs so deep that some of the parents are determined to create their own all white academy to protect their precious children from the influence of the black students.  

It appears that the school is following the letter of the law by admitting the black students, but not the spirit.  Sarah was at the top of her old school, but at Jefferson she is placed in remedial classes.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, and it has the potential to affect her acceptance to University.  Everyday is a struggle, and when the first of her fellow black students gives up and decides to return to their old school it has the potential to fan the flames.  When Sarah has to work with one of the white students for a class project it is a real eye opening experience - for both of them.  

Her whole life Linda has lived under the thumb of her controlling and violent father who ignores her one moment and lashes out at her the next - and she firmly believes that the blacks are inferior to the whites and that segregation must stay in place.  As she spends more time with Sarah she comes to see more similarities than differences, although at times she finds Sarah to be almost too confrontational to believe.  All Linda dreams about is marrying her secret fiance and escaping her family home, but her senior year has been thrown completely into chaos - and that may be the best thing that ever happened to her.

Lies we tell ourselves tackles two taboo topics with style, grace, and sensitivity.  Most people would love to forget the way black Americans were treated before desegregation, echoes of which are still felt today.  Words like segregation, apartheid, and dawn raids bring intense shame for different people around the world, but for similar reasons.  Not only does Robin Talley touch on the topic of ingrained and institutionalised racism, she also touches on the taboo topic of lesbian relationships and coming of age as a lesbian in a time when such relationships were seen as unnatural and could result in institutionalisation for mental illness.  

Lies we tell ourselves is in turns deeply emotional, horrifying, and satisfying, made more powerful by the switching viewpoints between Sarah and Linda.  By switching viewpoints we get to under more about each character, filling out the picture of each young woman so they are entire beings rather than cardboard cut outs or caricatures.  There are elements of archetypes here, with the strong female lead (who happens to be black in this story) who is facing challenges at school, and the popular girl (who in this case happens to be white) who seems to be leading the charge - but by switching viewpoints we get to see that Linda is not what she appears and that neither is Sarah.

As someone who is not American there are subtleties of this story that I would have missed, although that being said it is a very accessible book and most of the themes are universal.  In the days when I was a student we studied black civil rights as part of the New Zealand high school curriculum and some of the names and places are still easily recalled - Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks - but Lies we tell ourselves breathes fresh life into those memories, giving the struggle for equality a name and a life that will resonate with young people everywhere.  This is a confronting read because of what the black students went through, and it took me a few days to read because it was a very emotionally draining read, but it is also a book where the characters and their coming of age will stay with me for quite some time.  

There are some truly amazing themes explored here and it is a highly recommended read for people of all ages.  I have not read a book like Lies we tell ourselves before so I don't have any recommended reads that exactly fit, but if you explore some of the tags you may find other reads you will enjoy.

Reviewed by Brilla

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