Lies We Tell Ourselves is a powerful novel that focuses on the evolving relationship between two teenage girls on opposite sides of the segregated south: Sarah, one of the first black students to attend the all-white school in her town, and Linda, the daughter of a highly respected segregation activist who works for the local newspaper. The novel bounces back and forth between their points of view, so we see all of the hell that Sarah suffers at the hands of the teachers and students, and we also see Linda’s blind ideology, parroting her father’s beliefs as her own with no real knowledge behind them. Both girls are forced to confront their preconceived notions when they are paired together for a school assignment.
Linda is prejudiced against black people, but that’s because her father is and that’s how she was raised to be. Racism isn’t an inherent trait – it’s taught, it’s learned. Linda’s ideas on how and what black people are like begin to change as she spends more time with Sarah and realizes that she is intelligent, talented, and opinionated. (It’s slightly problematic in that Linda considers Sarah to be special and not like all the other black people, but baby steps. Baby steps. It’s hard to change a lifetime of indoctrination in a few months.) Meanwhile Sarah must deal with her own issues, namely realizing that her parents and the black community have a very different idea than she does on what constitutes a “successful” integration.
This is an important book for everyone to read because of the realistic picture it paints of what America was like in our recent past, and in fact, what America is still like today. Segregation may be illegal, but the attitudes behind it are still very much alive. Only by acknowledging this can we hope to change it.
But Lies We Tell Ourselves does not only deal with the important issue of racism – it also approaches internalized homophobia. In Robin Talley’s 1950s Virgina (as it was in real 1950s Virginia), a black girl and a white girl being friends was unheard of. Them being more than friends is something too terrible to even consider. On one side, you have Linda, who is engaged to the school’s assistant football coach for the primary reason of getting out from under her father’s abusive thumb. On the other side, you have Sarah, who hides women’s magazines under her mattress so that no one discovers her “sinful” behavior. As the girls break down their preconceived notions of race, they must also face their growing attraction, which neither can yet recognize for what it is.
This makes it doubly important, because we as a culture need to learn acceptance. Somewhere out there right now, girls are experiencing the same sort of sexual awakening and not sure how to handle it. And while this isn’t a coming out story in the traditional sense, it’s just as essential that a person acknowledges their identities to themselves alone, even if it isn’t yet safe enough for them to do so publicly.
Lies We Tell Ourselves is a fantastic read. Linda and Sarah both have distinct voices, and it is fascinating – though at times frustrating – to jump into each point of view. The struggle each girl faces was real and vibrant, but at times I thought the book was simply trying to do too much. These stories do need to be told, though, so perhaps you can’t fault it for trying.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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