When I was first learning about the Civil Rights movement in elementary/middle school, I heard about desegregation and people like the Little Rock Nine. Their bravery and strength stuck with me, and, as a young reader, I was horrified that kids would be harassed and assaulted just for trying to go to school. So when I heard about Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, which tells the story of two girls on opposite sides of desegregation who feel an unexpected connection, I knew this was a book that would connect with me. Having read it, I can honestly say that this is a book that will connect with so many readers. Here are a few of my reasons to read Lies We Tell Ourselves.
The book is told in two perspectives, and opens with Sarah Dunbar, one of the black students integrating Jefferson High School in Davisburg, VA. Sarah is a compelling, deeply sympathetic character. It’s so painful to see Sarah, who is so smart and thoughtful and talented and strong, have to stand up to the horribly bigoted, violent people in her town. I was immediately invested in Sarah’s character and my heart broke seeing her go through such awful experiences (and seeing her experience such inner turmoil).
When I got to the first Linda section, I was a little startled–how could I possibly sympathize with such an aggressively small-minded character, especially after reading about the totally sympathetic Sarah? But soon I found myself equally compelled by Linda, who is dealing with her own struggles and anxieties. Kudos to Robin for creating an ‘unsympathetic’ character who becomes complex and incredibly sympathetic.
Again, desegregation is a part of history I find deeply moving and fascinating. Robin doesn’t shy away from detailing some of the awful things students like Sarah would have experienced–violence, hateful slurs, cruel comments from classmates and teachers, violence toward family and friends. It’s an important part of history and I hope readers will find it similarly affecting and arresting.
4. Un-told History
Lies We Tell Ourselves isn’t just a book about desegregation–it also deals with young lesbian woman at a time and place in which being a lesbian was basically unheard of. Sarah and Linda experience an unexpected attraction to each other, and it’s heartbreaking to see them struggle with their feelings, which they’ve been taught to see as unnatural. I loved getting this story of two young women who yearn for a love that society tells them is wrong. Even though there were just as many LGBTQ teens in history as there are now, we don’t get many of their stories. I’m so glad to have Sarah and Linda’s stories here.
So I have a thing for family stories, but I loved getting to see both Sarah and Linda’s home lives. Sarah’s parents are active in the NAACP and want to bring about equality, but it puts enormous pressure on their daughters, who have to go to school everyday and face violence and cruelty. Meanwhile, Linda wants to escape her seemingly perfect family, especially her cold and cruel father. The girls’ worlds feel just as real as the main characters themselves.
I don’t want to spoil anything here, but Robin doesn’t pull punches for her characters, which makes Lies We Tell Ourselves a tough but honest read. I appreciate that she’s willing to make hard choices and keep things historically accurate, even while that can be difficult for the characters and the reader. These characters live in a very particular, unfair world–one not that removed or different from our own. The book–and the reader–are far better for it.
Each chapter is titled with a particular ‘lie’ a character is telling herself–which of course gave me major heartbreaking feels at the beginning of each chapter.
Every time I read a part of Lies We Tell Ourselves, I would leave practically shaking from anxiety and anger and sadness and for the characters. This is a book that leaves you shaken in all the right ways. I know it’s one I’ll keep thinking of and will want to share with a wide variety of other readers.
Even though Lies We Tell Ourselves is a heartbreaking, chilling book, it’s still ultimately hopeful and uplifting. Sarah and Linda find a new kind of strength and peace with themselves. I loved seeing them grow as characters and challenge the world around them, and found great hope in thinking about their lives beyond the end of the book.
Robin is a fellow Fourteenery member and one of the coolest, most thoughtful writers/people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. She’s the kind of person who you could easily talk with about deep issues or random life stuff. (She also sous-chef-ed the hell out of my dinner at the Fourteenery retreat.) Robin is an author to follow and an awesome person to know.
Lies We Tell Ourselves is due on September 30th. Get it on your pre-order list now!