‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’ by Robin Talley
A brutal book with so much to say: ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’ were one of my most anticipated reads for this summer, and it did not disappoint me.
‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’
September 30th 2014
Publisher, this copy:
In 1959 Virginia, the battle for civil rights reaches a new level, when Sarah Dunbar along with nine others are the first black students to attend the – up until now – all-white school, Jefferson High.
Sarah knows that they are facing a rough challenge. When she learns that most of the students never have even seen a colored person before, and she and her fellow new students receive death threats when they first enter the school, she has to come up with a strategy to get through the rest of the school year.
Neither the police nor her new teachers seem willing to defend her or the others, and every day is a nightmare. Everywhere the black students go, white students are spitting and shouting at them, and it never stops.
Black and white
Sarah abandons the thought of standing up for herself, when she learns how much trouble it might cause her.
But when her teacher forces her to work on a long term school project with Linda Hairston – a girl who has been nothing but horrible to her – she finally decides to speak up.
Linda, who has been brought up by a father with strong beliefs about the wrongness of integration, is as far from tolerating Sarah’s presence and opinions as possible.
However, things slowly start to change when Sarah keeps challenging Linda on her views. Is segregation really the answer to every problem in society?
Right and wrong
Told from alternating viewpoints, we get inside Sarah and Linda’s heads. We see both sides of the story, and that is something I always appreciate in a book.
With Sarah as the narrator of the first part of the story, I quickly developed a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. She is powerful as a character, and everything about her seems so real that I can’t believe she is fictional. I was rooting for her all along.
Linda, on the other hand, was – at first – described as such an awful person, that I almost couldn’t bear it. She and her friends did some terrible things to Sarah and the other colored students, and I had to put the book down several times while reading, to get myself together.
They were treated so badly, and I felt very ashamed that such awful things have happened only 50 years ago. Therefore, I had a hard time sympathizing with Linda, since I don’t think there is any excuse for being horrible to people you don’t even know.
As the story progressed, though, and I read Linda’s part of the story, I started to understand why she had become whom she is. When Sarah kept questioning her opinions, I started to see that Linda is just a confused teenager like everyone else (not that it’s an excuse, though), and that her views on integration mostly is caused by her father’s strong opinion.
Sarah sees this, too, and slowly things start to change between them. Linda learns that Sarah isn’t what she thought she would be like, and soon both of them finds themselves thinking of each other in ways they never thought they would.
Excerpt from ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’
It’s done. We did it. We’re in the school. But the while people are still staring at us. Shouting at us. They’re all around me. And they still look hungry.
Someone shoves into my right side. From behind, someone else’s elbow juts into my lower back. Another tall boy with blond hair is right in front of me. All I can see is the thick white wool of his letterman’s sweater. Someone pushes into me from behind. My face is crushed against the blond boy’s sweater, but he doesn’t move. I can’t breathe.
“Hey!” I hear Ennis shout, but he sounds too far away. I don’t know where Ruth is. My chest feels too tight. Someone is ramming me hard from the left, but I can’t move. There are too many white people. There’s nowhere to go. I can’t do this. I can’t stay here. I can’t breathe.
A tight grip closes around my right arm above the elbow, cutting off my circulation. Fingers dig into my flesh. They’re going to drag me out of here.
I never felt as fond of Linda as Sarah did, and therefore I found it hard to understand when Sarah’s feelings toward her started to change. I couldn’t forget how bad Linda had treated Sarah in the beginning, and how mad that had made me.
Nonetheless, I started to like Linda more, when she began questioning her own – and her father’s – beliefs and opinions. She turned out to be a much stronger and more thoughtful person than I had expected her to be at first, and that made my anger towards her grow smaller throughout the story.
Even though the book didn’t have the typical end, it left me feeling hopeful after I’d finished reading. Sarah and her family kept fighting for their rights, no matter how difficult things seemed. They never acted as victims, and they refused to give up. The white people treated them like garbage, but they had no good reason to do so.
Most of their knowledge of black people were based on myths and ignorance, which led to prejudices and discrimination. This still happens today – people are judged if they are anything but – what we define as – ‘normal’. Therefore, I think ‘Lies We Tell Ourselves’ is a crucial book.
I found it admiring to see how Sarah and her family somehow found the strength to keep fighting. This story is going to stay with me for a long time, and it’s definitely one of the most important books I’ve read this year.