Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
By Kay Waddilove
Lies We Tell Ourselves is a historical YA novel which interweaves a story of friendship, teenage identity crisis and burgeoning love into a brutal account of horrifying racism and prejudice. Set in the fictional US town of Davisburg Virginia in 1959, the story is narrated by two female protagonists; Sarah, a black girl entering a previously all-white high school, and Linda, a white girl who is the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor, a fervent white supremacist. In 1954, a time when open segregation was common in the southern states (‘white’ cafes, ‘whites only’ toilets, etc), all US schools, by Supreme Court ruling, had been required to become racially integrated (the Brown v. Board of Education ruling); the Court ruled that states must integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” Nevertheless, many Southern politicians resisted the ruling, utilising technical delaying tactics (some schools were shut down by local politicians or school boards for months or years – a history alluded to in the book), economic reprisals and direct intimidation in order to maintain a segregated and two-tier education system. Robin Talley grew up in Virginia, and decided to write this novel after hearing her parents discuss their own teenage memories of high school desegregation in the 1950s. She investigated historical records, including diaries of black students, and speaks on the Carnegie website of her shock at what she discovered during her research and her determination that the facts of history should be better known.
In 1957, a federal court ordered integration of the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools and nine African-American teenagers were enrolled into the Central High School. Such young people had thus been placed in the frontline of the struggle for civil rights, and on arrival, the ‘Little Rock Nine’ encountered a vicious white mob. This scenario clearly inspired the powerful opening chapter of Talley’s book, when the ten new black students turn up for their first day at Jefferson High, to be greeted by “a sea of angry white faces” and calls to “keep the niggers out”. The author pulls no punches in depicting the intimidation that her fictional characters face; from the outset the shocking language and physical violence aimed at them is described in challenging terms. As the progress and experiences of these students are followed throughout the school year, Talley maintains and builds suspense through her realistic description of events. No-one, apparently, is safe; incidents such as the false arrest and subsequent vicious life-threatening beating of Chuck, Ennis’s decision to leave Jefferson, Sarah’s final assertive rejection of her parents plans for her future, all reinforce the realism of this text while also ensuring that reader engagement is rooted in the unexpected turns of the plot.
In addition to this historical foreground, the novel explores themes of familial relationships and power through the contrasting home situations of Linda and Sarah, as well as the crucial development of their own friendship and emerging romance. Both sets of parents profess strong religious beliefs and apply widely differing interpretations of their Christian faith to the prevailing political situation. Linda’s uncomfortable but needy relationship with her distant father is dominated by his – and initially her own -pro-segregation views. In contrast, the affectionate, but rigidly controlling attitudes of Sarah’s parents are implicitly called into question by their apparent readiness to sacrifice the well-being of their daughters to the cause of race equality. Both heroines are engaged in a public/political as well as a private/self-identity battle, and the narrative device of parallel first-person story-telling in their alternate voices works effectively to delineate the characters’ confusions and misunderstandings on their journey to self-acceptance. The growth of the individual sexual and emotional identity of the two protagonists, as well as the socio-cultural expectations of their role as young women (marriage v education; economic contribution v domestic duty), is integrated into the racial narrative, seamlessly combining a character-oriented fictional story with the social, political and racial facets of the 1950s setting.
In interviews Talley has asserted her strong belief that YA (and all) fiction should promote diversity, and she uses the famous ‘windows and mirrors’ analogy on the Carnegie website. But despite the elision of racial struggle and gender identity issues in this narrative, young reader reviews online, as well as those of adult reviewers elsewhere, clearly respond most strongly to the hard-hitting history of racism depicted. An important criterion for the Carnegie prize is that, as well as being a good read, the winning book should provide “a vicarious, but […] real experience that is retained afterwards.” With quotes such as “could not put it down”, “inspires us to rethink” and “lingers long after you have finished it” littering the review pages, it is clear that Lies We Tell Ourselves overwhelmingly meets this criterion to win.
Despite the compelling themes and the strong depiction of the central characters, I would question the fully-rounded construction of some of the supporting roles; Linda’s father and some of the more racist teachers, for example, are fairly stereotypical characters. And the ending for the two protagonists, while pleasingly happy, is arrived at rather suddenly and is somewhat unrealistic in its avoidance of the challenges they will face in the 1950s (even in Washington DC); as gay, as young women questioning traditional roles, and as participants in an inter-racial relationship. Nevertheless, in a year of strong contenders for the Carnegie prize, this is a book that is well-written, is both satisfying and thought-provoking to read, and has evidently opened windows for many young readers. As one Carnegie reviewer (aged 14) put it “don’t even bother reading this review. Just get the book somehow. Borrow it. Buy it. Steal it. […] Then read it.” I second that.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.