Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
In 1959, desegregation of schools had become law and could no longer be delayed but that does not mean that it was welcomed. Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister are two of the first black students to attend Jefferson High School. She walks a gauntlet the first day of school just to enter the building where adults and students alike spit on her, scream racist remarks, and throw things. It doesn’t get much better inside with the abusive language continuing, no one willing to sit near the black students in class, and the teachers doing nothing to stop it. Linda Hairston is one of the white students that attends Jefferson High. She is also the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper, a man who is fiercely critical of the attempts at desegregation. Linda has been taught all of her life to fear her father and to keep separate from black people. Forced to work together on a school project, Linda and Sarah spend more time together and learn about each other. To make things more complicated, they are also attracted to one another, something that neither of their communities could understand much less embrace. This is a powerful story about two girls caught in a city at war about desegregation where their own secrets could get them killed.
Talley has created one of the most powerful fictional books about desegregation I have seen. Using the worst of racist terms that flow like water across the page, again and again, yet never becoming numbing, the language alone is shocking and jarring for modern readers. Add in the physical and emotional abuse that the black students suffered and you begin to realize the pressure that they were under not only to survive day to day but to excel and prove that they are worthy to be in the school. The gradual transformation of the attitudes of both Sarah and Linda are done believably and honestly. Nicely, Linda is not the only one who grows and changes in the process.
Adding in the LGBT element was a brave choice. While the book is about desegregation as much of the story, the attraction and relationship of the two girls is an equally powerful part of the book. Modern readers will understand their need for secrecy and somehow the hatred of gay people allows readers to better understand the hatred of African-Americans depicted on the page. It is clear by the end that bigotry is bigotry and love is love, no matter the color or the sex. Talley beautifully ties the two issues together in a way that strengthens them both.
Powerful, wrenching and brutal, this book has heroines of unrivaled strength and principles that readers will fear for and cheer for. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Harlequin Teen and Edelweiss.