Queer Book Club: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

lies-we-tell-ourselves-coverLies We Tell Ourselves is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1959 Virginia. It follows the story of Sarah and Linda, both seniors, who are on opposing sides of the battle to desegregate the town’s high school. Sarah is one of 9 black students starting in the previously all white high school, whereas Linda is the daughter of the local newspaper editor, a staunch and outspoken segregationist. At first, the two girls seem irrevocably opposed to one another, but are thrown together to complete a school French project. Despite the violence and bullying surrounding the new black students, despite their divisions, the two girls fall in love.

The novel is told from the points of view of both Sarah and Linda. It’s a heavy read. The first section, which is all from Sarah’s point of view, follows in close-up the horror of starting high school faced with so much opposition. The first walk up to the door of the school on the first day is a gruelling battle through racial taunts and missiles, while the police look on and do nothing. Every school day, every lesson, every lunchtime, every journey down a corridor, becomes fraught with danger and humiliation for the students. It quickly becomes clear that in order for this historic change to be made beyond a statute book or court, the students will pay with their physical and mental wellbeing. And things go from bad to worse as the strain takes its toll. Although the novel is told from both points of view, it felt more like Sarah’s story than Linda’s, and I think that’s a good thing.

This is such a powerful book. Talley captures the experiences of Sarah in such detail, and it’s painful to follow her, even though she’s incredibly strong through it all. Linda also goes on a journey, from blind prejudice to realisation that her father’s message of racial superiority, and the violence he brings even into his own home, are not the right way, even though she’s lived with them all her life. It’s definitely an eye-opening novel, if this is a period of history you don’t know a lot about. And if it is, Talley still makes it personal.

The story looks at the choices available to young women at the time, and both girls have to take control of their own lives before they can figure out what they want for the future. They must also come to terms with religious teachings that tell them their love for each other is wrong. I liked that there is nothing mushy about their relationship, nothing overly sentimental. Really, the romance takes a back seat to the history and self-discovery. Love isn’t going to fix everything, they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

Even though this is a tough read, there’s hope and love. Talley has a particular gift for creating powerful moments, both of horror and joy, and I ended up in tears more than once. Not a book, or a historical lesson, I’m going to forget in a hurry.

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