Lies We Tell Ourselves
1 journaler for this copy...
Eventually, this book caught my eye with its pretty cover and intriguing title. The blurb sounded really interesting and I liked the writing style, so I bought it. In fact, I started reading the same evening. On a Tuesday, which is unusually early to begin reading my book-of-the-week.
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 the fact that they may be falling for one another.
Even though I was highly interested in the plot, at the beginning I couldn't help wondering whether it might be a bit much. A gay mixed-race relationship in the late 50s, I mean. However, it didn't bother me at all while reading. While I got the impression that Talley is primarily an author of gay romances, in this book the race/colour issue remains firmly the focus of the story and the protagonists also happen to be gay, which admittedly complicates matters even further but also feels realistic.
I'm not normally a fan of fiction in first-person present tense, but it proved surprisingly effective here. The present tense it introduces an element of uncertainty with regards to the future which fitted the subject matter very well, and the first-person perspective enforces an absolute focus on the protagonist's world view as well as uncertainty of other people's thoughts and reactions. Having two first-person protagonists seems at odds with the latter, but but means that at times the reader knows more than either of the girls but still fully understands their respective doubts and worries.
I never stopped to wonder about the process of desegration and how difficult and painful it must have been. I knew that even after the abolishment of slavery, there was a long, long time of segregation during which the races were kept strictly separated, and that at some point black people (such as King or Parks) started protesting that, but I never even considered that, well, that it was a process, that equality (or what passes for equality today) didn't happen overnight, that people fought for it again and again, one right at a time.
Reading about the many laws and different societal expectations regarding black and white people was enlightening, especially the matter-of-fact way with which they got mentioned in the text (until Sarah started to question them). "Negroes" are supposed to use the back entrance to buy something in a shop, they have to use separate hard wooden benches in the cinema, there are colour-separated bathrooms, and sharing the same swimming area is unthinkable. It reminded me quite a bit of the laws excluding jews from participation in the Nazi society preceding the holocaust.
I liked how the book featured not only the "protests" of the students (who gleefully yelled expletives at their black classmates, spit on them and went out of their way to humiliate them) but also the institutional rejection of the coloured students (who got detention for "misdemeanors" that were no fault of their own while the responsible white students got away scot-free) and the intellectual arguments both for and against racial segregation. I thought it was interesting how some of the anti-integrationists were honestly worried about the black children's well-being, which was entirely justified of course, though maybe that's not exactly their choice to make.
Surprisingly, both Linda and Sarah find themselves under pressure by their parents to "do what's right" and "uphold our values". Though they come from such wildly different backgrounds, they discover that they still have some things in common. This confuses Linda (who believes that whites are superior) much more than it does Sarah who in turn is more affected by the power inequality of their dynamic. On the other hand, Linda appears much more accepting of the idea of liking a girl (it's possible that having a friend who, though she shuns her now, at least knows and keeps quiet, helps a bit) than Sarah who (although she already knew she was interested in girls before) struggles more with the "sin" of homosexuality and earnestly attempts to "self-correct" by way of praying and finding a boyfriend.
Spoiler about the ending, highlight to make visible! Given the severity of the subject matter, I did not at all expect a happy ending and was at the same time hoping both girls would be okay in the end and afraid of a cliché (and considering the times) unrealistic "happily ever after" romantic ending. I was subsequently pleased to get a happy but open ending. The girls did not "come out" (though at least Judy knows and disapproves) and it's not clear whether their attraction will be enough to overcome their political differences in the long run, but they managed to graduate, leave town and go to college. Their future lies ahead of them and they have plenty of time to decide whether they want to spend it together.
I liked this book a lot, so at least for the time being I'll keep it. My mother also was interested in reading it, so I'll be lending it to her.