'Lies We Tell Ourselves': A debut novel examines the many levels of bigotry
October 12, 2014 12:00 AM
Robin Talley, author of "Lies We Tell Ourselves."
By Ellen Goodlett
A stirring portrayal of the fight for integration in the late 1950s, and the toll it took on the high school students responsible for taking the first steps, Robin Talley’s debut novel, “Lies We Tell Ourselves,” tackles the hard topics: the civil rights movement, newly integrated schools in the Deep South, and teens coming to terms with their sexuality in an era when that was not even discussed in the open.
“LIES WE TELL OURSELVES”
By Robin Talley Harlequin Teen.
Told in an alternating dual narrative, the novel follows two high school senior girls on opposite sides of the integration battle. One girl, Sarah, is among the first 10 black students encouraged by her parents to enroll in the local white high school.
The other, Linda, is a white girl, daughter of the town’s most outspoken opponent of racial integration. As Sarah struggles to deal with ever-increasing hostility, slurs, threats and humiliation at school, popular and privileged Linda must slowly come to recognize the bigotry of her father, and the lies her whole town upholds.
But when they’re forced to work together on a school project, the girls have to confront more than just that ― they also need to confront the strange new emotions they feel when they’re together.
Ms. Talley’s debut hits a sensitive spot in a country that is still, half a century after integration, struggling to overcome racism, but it also reflects the ongoing LGBT rights movement of today. The parallels are subtle, but it’s easy to see how the overt racism of the ’60s so easily translates into today’s fight for marriage equality.
Both are touchy subjects, yet Ms. Talley navigates them with grace. She concentrates on her characters, developing their personalities, their conflicting interests, and showing how their experiences affect them.
In the author questionnaire at the back, Ms. Talley states that when drafting the book, she was frequently asked whether integration was really “that bad.” Considering the shocking depth to which students at the fictional school sink in order to fight having black classmates, it’s not surprising she gets that question a lot. Ms. Talley doesn’t pull any punches, which is admirable.
The discrimination Sarah encounters daily is gut-wrenching. But it’s the best decision for the story, because we need to see those scenes to understand everything that Sarah is up against (and that her nonfictional counterparts faced in reality not so very long ago).
Although it is easy to see the direction the story is headed in from the start, the larger-than-life characters will tug at your heartstrings anyway. Sarah is lovable from the start, strong in the face of the overwhelming discrimination she faces.
At first, Linda is a painfully ignorant character whom you can’t help pitying or disliking, but over the course of the novel, she takes strides toward improving herself and her understanding of the world. Turning an unlikable character into a sympathetic one takes effort, but Ms. Talley manages it here.
This is not an easy book to read, but there’s a lot of hope at the core of the story, lighting the way through the tougher passages. I wish we had seen more of the characters together, and more of their feelings toward one another.
The romance felt underplayed, which was a shame, because it was extremely compelling. Sarah I felt I understood. She had a lot of complex, convoluted emotions around her romantic longings that rang true, especially given her religious upbringing.
Linda, on the other hand, I had a harder time grasping. I wish we had just a few more scenes inside her head toward the end, to see what she was feeling when she made certain decisions.
However, considering how many young adult novels fawn over romances rather than keeping an eye on the bigger picture, this was only a small concern. I appreciate that Ms. Talley didn’t shy from giving her characters a lot to deal with, and clear character arcs as they navigate difficult choices along the way.
Definitely a must-read book for 2014 — and future years to come, as I’m sure this book will go down in the young adult canon as a classic.
Ellen Goodlett is the author of the upcoming novel “The Quiet Ones” due out in 2016.
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