Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley: A Retro-Review by Emily Meixner
There is only one thing in this world right now that I want.
I want to get out of here. I want to get up, go find my sister and drag her out the front door. I don’t want either of us to ever set foot in this place again.
I’m starting to think things aren’t going to get better after this. I’m starting to think they’re going to get worse.
–Sarah Dunbar, Lies We Tell Ourselves, p. 25
This past March, my husband and I cashed in a decade’s worth of credit card points, packed our bags, and headed to England with our son. After several amazing days in London and one glorious Harry Potter-fueled afternoon taking the Warner Brothers studio tour (The sorting hat! The night bus! Butterbeer!), I found myself standing gape-mouthed in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. The sheer enormity of the store is astonishing, but that wasn’t why I was shocked. There, in the very front of the youth section of the store, was a large display consisting entirely of LGBTQIA YA novels. I immediately whipped out my phone and started snapping pictures – to celebrate and document the display, but also to remind myself later of all of the titles with which I wasn’t familiar. Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves was one of these books. (Here’s one of the pictures I took!)
Even though ALL OF THESE TITLES WERE ON SALE, I showed remarkable restraint and waited until I was back home to order several of them. Lies We Tell Ourselves was the first to arrive, and even though I’ve read many other books since finishing it, I can’t seem to get it out of my head or my heart.
A synopsis: The setting is small town Virginia in 1959. Sarah Dunbar and several of her peers are the first black students to attend the local white high school after a long, contentious court battle that ultimately requires the school’s desegregation. The harassment that Sarah and her peers face is harrowing and relentless, and their bravery and resilience in the face of it is nothing less than astonishing.
When Sarah is assigned a group project in her French class, she finds herself partnered with two white classmates, one of whom (Linda Hairston) is the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper, a vocal opponent of racial integration. Sarah is attracted to Linda intellectually and romantically, and this attraction forces her to question her relationship with God, her understanding of sin, and her imagined future.
Linda, too, is drawn to Sarah, but even though she loathes the emotional and physical violence Sarah experiences every day, she doesn’t believe in integration. Linda is also deeply afraid of her verbally and physically abusive father and wants desperately to move out of her house, which she plans to do shortly after she graduates by marrying her boyfriend.
Whereas Sarah has been aware of her attraction to other girls for many years, Linda’s growing feelings for Sarah come as a surprise. Ultimately both girls have to decide who they are and what they want…in 1959…in Virginia.
“No. He didn’t see it yesterday, but now –” She [Linda] rubs her eye. “I shouldn’t have done it. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Yes, you do. You told me. It’s about right and wrong, remember? That’s all any of this is about.”
No, It’s not,” she says. It can’t be. Because this is wrong, remember?”
She lifts our hands. They’re still clasped tightly together. Even though we aren’t running anymore.
“I don’t think right and wrong is always that simple,” I say.
Part of my powerful reaction to this novel, I’m sure, was the complex characterization of both young women. Sarah and Linda are thoughtfully conceived and it’s fascinating to watch them navigate the rigid ideologies about race, class, gender, and faith in which they’re enmeshed. I appreciated that while the ending was hopeful, it’s wasn’t unrealistic. Talley doesn’t allow her readers to imagine that Sarah or Linda’s lives will be easy or that the violence Sarah’s younger sister Ruth will continue to face at school will ebb any time soon. But, she does paint a portrait of two smart, articulate, brave young women who choose, despite fear and prejudice, to follow their hearts.
Timing was also a factor. Near the end of our England trip and just prior to Lies, I finished Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys (for that Nerdy Review see: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2016/01/20/all-american-boys-by-jason-reynolds-brendan-kiely-response-by-teresa-bunner-jillian-heise/ ). Despite a nearly 60 year gap (All American Boys takes place in the present), the two novels share many similar themes and even a similar alternating-narratives construction. In terms of American race relations, they demonstrate how far we still have to go. Instructionally, these two books would make a powerful pairing.
Finally, this book got me thinking seriously about genre and how few examples of young adult LGBTQIA historical fiction there are – in general, but especially with LGBTQ main characters AND main characters who are racially diverse. The Lies We Tell Ourselves reminded me that the history I know and read is all too white and all too straight.
In this particular political moment, it seems essential to continue to read and to provide our students with nuanced, layered texts that explore the price of prejudice. As Talley demonstrates in the novel, we often lie to ourselves to stay safe or to survive. We lie to ourselves to preserve our beliefs and/or to protect ourselves, our friends, and our families. Eventually, however, like Sarah and Linda, we have to confront the violence these lies perpetuate. Lies We Tell Ourselves is a heart-breaking and heart-mending exploration of one such confrontation. May there be many more books like it.
“Other people will always try to decide things for you,” she [Sarah] says. “They’ll try to tell you who you are. Remember,” she continues, “no matter what they say, you’re the one who really decides.”
Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, where she teaches courses on secondary ELA pedagogy and young adult literature. She is currently reading All The Light We Cannot See, her department’s summer reading selection. You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.