Author Robin Talley gives us a stunning look at the school integration wars of the 1950s in her debut novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Seen through the eyes of two high school girls — one black, one white — caught up in the terror and day-to-day struggles of the early days of a Virginia high school’s forced integration, Lies takes us behind the historical record into the hearts and minds of the young people who had to actually live it all.
We’ve all read about integration in our history books and seen the photos of the Little Rock Nine being escorted into school by police through a jeering crowd. But what must it have been like for the students themselves? What did they feel, and what did they want?
In Lies We Tell Ourselves, we see both sides of the struggle through the two main characters, Sarah and Linda. Sarah is an honors student at the black high school in town; Linda is the white daughter of the town’s virulently anti-integration newspaper editor. When the court ruling comes down which forces the local white school to open its doors to black students, Sarah, her younger sister Ruth, and eight other students become the living symbols of integration. Once the NAACP wins its case, it’s the children who have to walk the path laid out for them by their parents and other adults. Everyone is just looking for an excuse to call integration a failure, so the pro-integration side lays out strict rules for the children: No fighting, no arguing, no answering back, no defending oneself, no extracurricular activities. Go along, get along — just walking the halls is an achievement, so don’t do anything that’ll hand the other side an excuse to say it doesn’t work.
The experiences of Sarah and the others are horrifying. Yelled at, spit upon, assaulted, impeded, harrassed, and threatened, entering the school and walking to their classrooms each day is like walking through a minefield. When someone spits on Sarah or dumps milk over her head, she can’t react, but must simply move on through the day. If she gives any hint that she’s upset, it’ll give the segregationists fuel for their argument that no one is ready for mixing of the races.
I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty. This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse. Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.
From Linda’s perspective, the “agitators” — the black students — are just ruining her senior year. Why couldn’t they stay in their own schools? Why do they need to come and cause such chaos in her own perfect little world? Even worse for Linda is her internal conflict — is it possible that the “Southern values” she’s been raised with are wrong? Is it possible that the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis isn’t about preserving tradition, but is simply ugliness and hatred?
For eighteen years, I’ve believed what other people told me about what was right and what was wrong. From now on, I’m deciding.
The day to day realities of 1959 in Virginia are simply awful to read about through the lens of our 21st century, post-Civil Rights sensibilities. The actions within the school are revolting. The verbal harassment, including the most disgusting racial epithets, are constant. The teachers and administration routinely turn a blind eye. In home ec class, Sarah is given her own sets of pots and pans to use, so that white kids don’t have to handle implements dirtied by black hands. It goes on and on, and reading about it through the words of students living it is incredibly painful.
Complicating matters even further for Sarah and Linda is that they’re thrown together as partners on a project for French class, and as they begin to know one another, each is reluctantly aware of a growing attraction toward the other. The girls spend much of their time together arguing, but beneath the racial divide, there’s a simmering interest that has nothing to do with skin color. As each girl realizes that dating boys and pretending to fit in doesn’t really work for her, entirely different questions about shame, sin, and what’s “natural” and “normal” surface.
I almost felt like telling Sarah and Linda, “don’t you have enough on your plates right now?” Just attempting a friendship is enough to get Linda ostracized and ridiculed and for Sarah to become even more of a target for the thuglike white boys from school. To pursue a same-sex relationship in the South of the 1950s seems foolhardy in the extreme, and while it was moving to see what the girls go through and how caught in a web of hatred they each find themselves, I’m not sure that the story needed one more element to put the characters at risk.
That said, I found Lies We Tell Ourselves to be a moving, important, and brave book. It’s eye-opening to take a well-known chapter of history and revisit it through the perspectives of people who lived through it. I’d thought I could imagine what it must have been like to live through those days, based on reading history books and watching documentaries. But sometimes, it takes fiction to make facts come alive, and that’s what the author achieves here. By giving us a personal point of entry to the experience, we walk the halls of the high school with Sarah and Linda and experience the fear, the hate, the humiliation, and the absolutely insane level of courage it must have required simply to take the few steps from one classroom to another.
Sarah and Linda are remarkable, unforgettable characters, and while the book ends at the conclusion of their high school careers, I can’t help thinking about how much better their lives will be from this point forward. They’ve each changed dramatically, and they’ve stood at the center of social change and survived.
Lies We Tell Ourselves would make a fantastic addition to any US History class curriculum, but more than that, its story of two brave girls trying to find their way and do what’s right should be widely read by teens and adults, in school or out. Robin Talley’s fine writing gives us a front-row seat to a difficult and important chapter of our nation’s recent history — but beyond the social value, she’s also written just a really good novel that conveys true emotion and personal growth.
Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: September 30, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin Teen via NetGalley