It’s 1959. The battle for civil rights is raging. And it’s Sarah’s first day of school as one of the first black students at previously all white Jefferson High. No one wants Sarah there. Not the Governor. Not the teachers. And certainly not the students – especially Linda, daughter of the town’s most ardent segregationist.
Sarah and Linda are supposed to despise each other. But the more time they spend together, the less their differences matter. And both girls start to feel something they’ve never felt before. Something they’re determined to ignore. Because it’s one thing to stand up to an unjust world – but another to be terrified of what’s in your own heart.
I discovered Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley on one of those ‘required reading’ lists. I am really a sucker for such lists. As usual, I made a promise to myself I would read all of them. Somewhat unusually, I actually followed through and ordered one of them. This one. And I am so glad that I did. Lies We Tell Ourselves knocked my metaphorical socks off.
The book is written in dual POV – alternating between Sarah and Linda – with a chapter at the end narrated by Sarah’s younger sister, Ruth. Each chapter begins with a lie. Some of Sarah’s include ‘there’s no need to be afraid’, ‘there’s no point fighting’ and ‘I give up’. Linda tells herself things like ‘I’m exactly who I want to be’ and ‘I’m the same person I was before.’ These small opening statements effectively track the character development of Sarah and Linda – as the book nears the end the lies become thinner and thinner until they no longer exist. Talley opens the final three chapters of the novel with truths. It is so satisfying you find yourself wanting to dive into the pages and start high fiving people. And I’m really not a high-fiving type.
The racist abuse and violence that take place in this novel aren’t easy to read. White schools in Virginia were so determined not to admit black students that when the court ruled in favour of integration, the Governor closed all the schools out of spite. They are only reopened after months of further legal battles. Starting as one of the first few black kids to attend a previously all-white school in the state is utterly terrifying to read.
When Sarah and the other kids the NAACP determined would be the first to attempt desegregation start at Jefferson High, they are subjected to endless abuse. They are shouted at, pushed, spat on and ignored by their teachers. They are smart kids – that’s why they were chosen to attend Jefferson – but the administration has put them in remedial classes anyway, determined that there’s no way they’d be able to keep up with the white students. Sarah is stuck covering material she learned in her old school two years before. She spends all day worrying about her sister, Ruth, and is often late to classes as she ensures Ruth makes it to her own safely. It’s horrendous, Lord of the Flies level terrifying behaviour. After a couple of violent incidences, the school enacts an instant exclusion policy for any student caught fighting. What this actually means is that they expel the black kids when they get beaten up. The white kids – the perpetrators – unsurprisingly, suffer no such consequences.
I knew that the book was about a romantic relationship between a black girl and a white girl, but I wasn’t expecting the dual POV. I wasn’t expecting to read the perspective of Linda, the racist protégée of her even more racist father (being racist is the only thing they have to bond over because Linda’s father hates her for reasons that are never entirely clear. I think that’s the point. He is a hateful man, and sadly for him, never becomes capable of anything else). Reading Linda’s thought process is uncomfortable to say the least. She starts the novel as a fantastically ignorant individual, parroting the views of the hateful father she wishes to escape, but does not think to question. The worst part is, that for the longest time, Linda doesn’t think of herself as racist. She thinks that segregation was a situation that was just better – for both black and white people. When Sarah tells her that black schools were under funded, and had none of the resources students took for granted at Jefferson, her instinct is toward disbelief. Like all prejudiced people, she has grown up with the idea that people’s lack is their own fault. Watching this particular viewpoint crumble (and her growing feelings for Sarah) is satisfying. For a long time, Linda tells herself that Sarah is just ‘different from the rest of them’ – in an attempt to marry the dominant worldview of her peers with the new person she is becoming. As the title implies, she tells herself that until she can’t anymore.
There is something beautiful in watching Linda grow out of the hatred her father placed on her shoulders. That isn’t something we often see people shrug off.
The ending of this book is wonderful, if perhaps a little too perfect. Sarah deals with a lot of doubt through the school year. Suffering abuses and humiliations every day, it’s easy to forget what the end goal is – that her daily existence actually has a greater significance. That she is paving the way for other black children to get the education they deserve. She sees it when she reaches the end. She learns her own power. And she channels it. She takes control of her future, and leaves the shitty town of Davisburg for something better, something that she creates for herself. Sarah’s journey to self-acceptance is engagingly incomplete. Yeah, it’s a problem that she feels like she (and Linda) can only be themselves by leaving Davisburg (and, crucially, their parents), but her decision to go – and then actually doing it – is beyond empowering. If the final chapters of this book don’t make you tear up a little, you might be missing a piece of your heart.
This book is absolutely required reading.