About a year ago, I read about Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the Southern United States. There is a movie about her, which I couldn’t source, but I remember thinking what a fantastic story it would be to read.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read just such a story, except this one is set in a high school, and is fictional (but historically accurate).
Lies We Tell Ourselves is the story of ten black students who are the first to attend a top-notch all-white school in Virginia. It starts on their first day at the new school, being taunted and spat at and not at all very well-protected by their police escort.
But it is also the story of one white girl at the school, whose father is one of their community’s staunchest supporters of segregation. This girl, Linda, is set against integration, but circumstance forces her to work with Sarah (our other narrator), and predictable they bump heads… a lot.
This novel focuses on issues of racism as well as LGBTQ issues, with your everyday high school politics, women’s lib issues and parental strife thrown in the mix.
Initially I felt a bit dubious about the LGBTQ aspect of the story, because it felt like there was a whole lot of “tokening” going on, but on second thought, why SHOULDN’T this be historically accurate? And by all accounts, homophobia was as big of an issue in those days. It also serves as quite a good juxtaposition, as both integration and homosexuality are considered unnatural and un-Christian by many people.
There was something about this book – and not just the subject-matter – that made me struggle to put it down. The tone and character-building was spot-on. There was nothing superfluous about the dialogue. It was as genuine as I could possibly imagine.
The growth of the characters happens so subtly that it, too, is more realistic. The changes occur over time, rather than magically in a second.
Obviously, there are very disturbing things that take place in these pages. I feel that Robin Talley did a great job of describing them with candor and sensitivity, which is no mean feat. She makes them striking to read without disrespecting the reality of these events.
For readers: prepare yourself for a good dose of nausea and guilt, no matter who you are or where you are from. Prepare yourself for a good deal of internal debate. That is part of what makes this such a fantastic example of YA.
I was wary of the dual point-of-views, but it worked wonderfully. Initially I villainised Linda, but the wonderful thing is that my empathy for her grew too. I was a little shocked by the change of POV in the epilogue, but it is very symbolic of the continued battle against discrimination.
My wish would be that this book would be studied in high schools. While To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favourite books about racial equality, I think this one may be more relatable for high school students and would be great if read in conjunction with TKAM. I don’t think at that young age one always realizes how complicit you can be in some issues.
While reading this I kind of wished a South African would write something like this about when schools began to integrate here. I know it’s touched on in a few books like Spud by John van de Ruit, but I think it would be so good for our younger generations to understand what it was like in their own country.
“For all we know they trade in those badges for white sheets at night.”
Although to some extent the story is a bit predictable, that doesn’t diminish it. Nearer the end there were two moments that gave me a sudden attack of the goosebumps. Great work – and one of my favourite reads for the year!
“Someday, the history books will write about what’s happening to us right now. What do you want them to say about you? That you did nothing while history was happening all around you? Or do you want them to say you stood up for your beliefs, for your culture, for your state?”
Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book via the publisher (Harlequin Teen) and NetGalley. This has not biased my review.