LIES WE TELL OURSELVES written by Robin Talley
Published by: Harlequin Teen
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction, YA, LGBT
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. (Summary from author’s website.)
Having always been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement, I thought I understood the struggle, that is until I read this book. I truly did not have a clue. Robin Talley forces us out of the spectator role and puts us directly into the view of the kids who had to endure the reality of integration. Robin Talley’s characters invite us to question our own beliefs as they explore the lies they tell themselves at the beginning of each chapter while they struggle with what’s happening and with who they are becoming. I was gripped by this story from the first pages.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the story:
“If anything happens, you come find me, all right?” I whisper. “Don’t trust the teachers or the white people. Come straight to me.”
“I can take care of myself,” Ruth whispers back. She steps away from me and links arms with Yvonne, one of the other freshmen.
“What are you gonna do if they try something?” Chuck asks Ennis. He keeps his voice low, trying to blend in with the dull roar coming from the school, so the younger kids won’t hear him. Chuck, Ennis and I are the only three seniors in our group. Most of the others are freshmen and sophomores. “They’ve got some big guys on that football team.”
“Never mind that,” Ennis says, raising his voice so the others can hear. “They won’t try anything, not in school. All they’ll do is call us names, and we’ll just ignore them and keep walking. Isn’t that right, Sarah?”
“That’s right,” I echo. I want to sound in charge, like Mrs. Mullins, but my voice wobbles.
Ennis holds my eye. His face looks like Daddy’s did this morning, when he watched Ruth and me climb into the carpool station wagon. Like he’s taking a good, long look, in case he doesn’t get another chance.
Ennis sounds like Daddy, too. My father and Mrs. Mullins and the rest of the NAACP leaders have been coaching us on the rules since the summer, when the court first said the school board had to let us into the white school. Rule One: Ignore anything the white people say to you and keep walking. Rule Two: Always sit at the front of the classroom, near the door, so you can make a quick getaway if you need to. And Rule Three: Stay together whenever you possibly can.
“What if they spit on us?” one of the freshmen boys whispers. The ten of us are walking so tightly together down the narrow sidewalk we can’t help but hear each other now, but none of us makes any move to separate. “We’re supposed to stand and take it?”
“You take it unless you want something worse after school lets out,” Chuck says.
There’s a glint in Chuck’s eye. I don’t think he’ll take anything he doesn’t want to take.
I wonder what he thinks is going to happen today. I wonder if he’s ready.
I thought I was. Now I’m not so sure.
“Listen up, everybody, this is important.” Ennis sounds serious and official, like the NAACP men. “Remember what they told us. Look straight ahead and act like you don’t hear the white people. If a teacher says something to you, don’t talk back. Don’t let anybody get you alone in the bathroom or on the stairs. And no matter what happens, you just keep walking.”
“What if somebody tries to hang us from the flagpole?” the freshman says. “Do we just keep walking then, too?”
“You watch your mouth,” Chuck tells him. “You’ll scare the girls.”
I want to tell him the girls are plenty scared already.
Instead I straighten my shoulders and lift my head. The younger kids are watching me. I can’t let them see how my stomach is dropping to my feet. How the fear is buzzing in my ear like a mosquito that won’t be swatted away.
We round the corner. Across the street, Jefferson High School sweeps into view. The white people are spread out across the front steps and the massive parking lot. Now I know why we could hear the crowd so well. There must be hundreds of them. The whole student body, all standing there. Waiting.
I could feel the tension of these black students going through their first day of integration so intently, I don’t think my own muscles unclenched until they were safely home. How any of them made it through an entire week, let alone an entire school year, living with constant fear and under torturous conditions is beyond me.
But what makes this story really outstanding is the emotional connection Talley achieves through the slow unraveling of the forbidden love between the two main characters, Sarah and Linda. When these two are thrown together to work on a school project, the retorts fly. They can’t stop arguing over their different stances on everything, especially race and integration. Sarah is normally so guarded, always hiding the many aspects of herself, that when she starts fighting with Linda she is allowed to be herself. Both girls start looking forward to these heated exchanges until they become something more.
Talley weaves such a wonderfully nuanced tale that connects today’s struggle for equality with that of the past, making it just as relevant and just as terrifying. Sarah and Linda’s relationship grows so naturally and painfully that I couldn’t stop reading it. Really an excellent book. I recommend it to everyone.
Robin Talley will also be stopping by my personal blog, Barbies on Fire, next week for an interview. We’ll discuss the extensive research she did for this book and go more in-depth about how she tackled the dual issues of race and sexual identity. Stay tuned!
Learn more about Robin Talley here.
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And just to continue to spread the love, I am holding a giveaway for my copy of this fantastic book. I’ll be accepting entries from both blogs from November 7th until the end of the month. Entries will close on November 30th at midnight. Good luck, everyone!
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