Monday, June 29, 2015

The Truth According to Us

by Annie Barrows
Dial Press     2015
512 pages     Fiction

Here is how Annie Barrows sets the stage for The Truth According to Us on her website:  

"It all began at the Decoration Day Parade, when the Rotary Club band honked out the last notes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Willa Romeyn, age 12, made a solemn vow to discover all the secrets that adults hide from children.  
It all began when Miss Layla Beck refused to marry Nelson the Citronella Scion, was tossed out of the lap of luxury, and landed—in white high-heels—at the train station of Macedonia, West Virginia.
It all began when the Town Council of Macedonia decided to commemorate the town’s Sesquicentennial with a dignified yet lively recounting of its history, to be entitled The History of Macedonia.
It all began when Jottie Romeyn cleaned out her spare room for a new boarder, a girl named Layla Beck, who was writing something or other for the Town Council.
It all began when Willa got run over by a bicycle on her way to meet Miss Layla Beck at the train station.
It all began when Felix Romeyn lifted his hat, held out his hand, and said, “Welcome to Macedonia.”
Or did it all begin twenty years earlier, on the night when the American Everlasting Hosiery Factory burned to the ground?"

And that's all you need to know about the story. 

We know from literature that pre-teen girls love to solve family secrets; Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird being the prime example. Lucky Us, which I read last year, had a delightful pre-teen protagonist, Eva, and a dishonest father like Willa's father, Felix, from The Truth According to Us.  

Although Willa is the narrator of parts of the story, she is only one of an extraordinary cast of characters in small town Macedonia, West Virginia. Willa is part of the Romeyn family, who everyone in town knows, and whose secrets everyone seems to know as well. It is difficult to keep secrets in a small town, but it is easier to keep secrets from children. Willa knows there are secrets, and as she helps Layla Beck write up the history of Macedonia for the WPA Writer's Project, the truth begins to come clear to her. Layla, a stranger to the community, knows there are secrets as well, and as she lives as a boarder with the Romeyn family, she strives to put the story of the family and the story of the community down on paper.

Barrows has done a remarkable job of filling the novel with details about the year 1938, the last year of the depression. In one of my favorite details, Willa's little sister cuts paper dolls out of the Sears catalog. That was still a favorite pastime when I was a little girl in about 1950. I have a fond memory of cutting out an entire family and everything they needed from the catalog. Barrows obviously knows small town life intimately as well, because Macedonia is an absolutely believable community. 

My major fascination with The Truth According to Us is the wry, intelligent commentary of Willa. She is one astute girl, and her efforts to get to the bottom of the family mystery endears her to the readers. One of my favorite lines comes from Willa's efforts to translate the community's history into her family history—knowing, as she does, that the histories are one and the same. She reflects: "This is what's called the enigma of history, and it can drive you right out of your mind, if you let it."

I connected so well with Willa, I think, because I spent a long time, when I was about 12, trying to understand my parents' lives during World War II when my father was stationed in the South Pacific. In an attic trunk, my mother kept all the letters she received from him, and all the letters she sent him. My mother's letters were passionate and poetic. My dad's letter's richly censored by the Marine censors. I spent endless hours rummaging around in that trunk and other boxes in the attic figuring out family mysteries.

West Virginia is not a common setting for novels, although Phyllis Naylor and Cynthia Rylant have set several of their juvenile novels there. I believe that the only West Virginia book I have read since I began reviewing books online is Lord of Misrule, a horse racing novel that won the National Book Award in 2010.

My advice is to read this book in the coolness of the air conditioning. It's a very hot summer in Macedonia West Virginia.
Annie Barrows coauthored the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with her aunt Mary Anne Shaffer. Most of her other books are juvenile fiction, including the inimitable Ivy and Bean series. 

 Review in the Washington Post.

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