Slight Spoiler Warning
In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
I have to admit that I came into this book with a few apprehensions. I have been in a major YA book slump where each book that I have picked up didn’t fully live up to my expectations. Some of them were good but for the last two months I haven’t really connected with anything.
I wanted to read this book because, as I’ve said before in my Shadowshaper review, I wanted a book with a more diverse cast of characters. Another thing that attracted me to this book, however, is its particular subject matter. I must admit here and now that I am a huge history buff and, being such, one of my favorite topics in American history is the Civil Rights movement. Since this book discusses topics like racism and integration, it couldn’t escape my notice as it buzzed around on social media. Despite that, I started to debate with myself if this book could handle these heavy topics with due weight.
Luckily, my fears were put to rest when I got near the end of this book. It’s obvious that Robin Talley did a fair bit of research to do the setting and the characters justice (as also evidenced by her author’s note). Though not explicitly dated within the text itself, I could tell that this book was set in 1950s America when the Civil Rights movement was in full speed. I physically cringed when I witnessed the abuses hailed on the black students admitted into the newly integrated Jefferson High. From my 21st century perspective, the sensitive, naïve part of me debated if this level of bullying and hate really existed but the historically versed side of me said yes, this did happen then and it still happens today.
I really connected with the characters of this book. I knew what was at stake for them and the reasons they thought the way they did. Sarah Dunbar was thrust into the middle of this civil rights struggle by many of the adult figures in her life. As the book continues, she questions the validity of the struggle and whether or not if all that she and her friends go through is really justified to meet those ends. Linda Hairston is the daughter of a staunch anti-integrationist who holds tremendous sway over public opinion. Like everyone else in the town, she feels that integrationist efforts are messing with their way of life and infringing on their liberties. Though these two characters come from opposing viewpoints, the story keeps on drawing parallels between them. Both have been fed a particular view of the world and their positions in it. It was interesting to see how, as they came to know one another, their perceptions changed throughout the course of the narrative.
The book also carries the lesson of being true to one’s self. Sarah not only has to contend with her racial identity but her sexual one as well. She constantly struggles with her feelings towards the same-sex the more the narrative goes on because she couldn’t help but view herself as inherently sinful. This becomes more so as the friendship that blooms between her and Linda becomes something more. Linda struggles with these issues as well but she also wants to better her father’s opinion of her and is caught up in keeping up appearances with her peers. The book tries to convey that you shouldn’t let anyone else determine who you are. You have to decide the direction of your life by yourself. Though this view is verging on anachronistic in this time period, I feel it is a very valid message.
It’s really hard to find something wrong with this book but if I had to nit-pick I could complain that Linda and Sarah’s voice sounded very similar. Though the book is told from two completely different perspectives in the first person, there was nothing really delineating one voice from the other though they talk about different topics. This is just a nit-pick though and I realize how difficult it is to craft different voices in writing.
So, if it wasn’t obvious, I absolutely adored this book. Even when the book ended I wondered what was next for these two characters. I believe that everyone should read it. It has some nice historical background, thoughtful character development and tension that will keep you glued throughout.
This book also has a lot to say about our society then and now. Most of us think that stuff like discrimination and racism are a thing of the past but the news nowadays show that they are very much alive and well. Lies We Tell Ourselves show how damaging these things are and their impact on the perpetrators and the victims. As a history major, you start to learn that events of the past aren’t as clear cut as history books and certain retelling would make you believe. It’s important that we, as a society, constantly reassess our troubled history and our values to make sure that we can learn from our mistakes so they won’t be repeated.