Sarah Dunbar is amongst the first black students to attend Jefferson High School, a previously all white high school, in segregated Virginia in 1959. Lies We Tell Ourselves takes us with these students on their hellish first few terms at Jefferson High. Sarah is a lesbian, and she falls badly for Linda Hairston, the white daughter of the most vocal opponent to school integration.
In Lies We Tell Ourselves, these two girls on the opposite side of the civil rights battle, are drawn together by an attraction both of them wishes they didn’t feel.
This young adult book has a stunningly beautiful cover, the front has Sarah’s silhouette, the back has the silhouette of Linda on, and if you open up the book, they are looking at each other. As a book for young adults, it deals in a fairly light way with the awful nature of Sarah’s experience at Jefferson High. It is still upsetting, and she and the other black students are subjected to daily violence and abuse, but it stops short of the visceral type of description you get in adult books like The Underground Railroad. This doesn’t stop it from being a really great, eye opening look at what these students must have been through and, in fact, the dedication, to the Norfolk 17, is a reminder that many real life children were on the front line in this hard fought battle.
I liked the fact that Sarah and Linda are lesbians. I hardly read any books with LGBTQ+ characters, it’s lovely to find one where they are, and it’s not even the main part of the story. It’s important, and helps to change Linda’s mind about her stance on integration, and it’s clear that even though characters in the book disagree on integration, they all agree that being gay is WRONG. It’s important for Linda’s character to feel like she is different for some reason, and she questions just why feeling this way is wrong, and of course it isn’t and it’s just that she has been told it is wrong. This echoes what she has been told about integration, and of course she begins to question her life long held beliefs.
Sarah, and her little sister Ruth, are amongst ten black students attending Jefferson High School. They are the brightest students from their old high school and have all volunteered to take on this task, though clearly wanting to please their parents takes a role in their decisions. They are put into remedial classes and they suffer terrible abuse every day. The whole school was closed for a term while the local authorities tried to stop the integration.
When you read about a topic, often you notice other references to the same topic cropping up in other areas of you life. While reading this book, I am also listening to the audio book of What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (not at the exact same time of course!). In What Happened, Hillary describes how she was sent undercover to schools, in 1964, to investigate their refusal to desegregate. She had to pose as the wife of a businessman moving to the area and quizzed school about their policies. Her evidence was used to then prosecute the schools. I can not wait to write my review of this book!
Lies We Tell Ourselves is a great young adult book. You get chapters from the viewpoints of both girls, and each chapter is titled by a lie the girl is telling herself in that chapter, for example: I hate her, or I’m not strong enough to do this. I loved that, and I really enjoyed this book!