Several years ago I read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I enjoyed it so much that I felt sure I would enjoy a novel by one of its authors, and I chose to read this novel on the strength of that. I was right!
“The truth according to us” is set in the fictional mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938. The characters are richly drawn and the book’s pace is as slow as the sultry summer in which the story unfolds.
The town, situated on the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, has been in existence for 150 years. To celebrate this important anniversary, they have agreed to have a small book or booklet written detailing “a dignified yet lively recounting” of the town’s history. Don’t forget it is the height of the depression – a time when the men of the town, those who don’t work at the mill, are out of work, are often “waiting for nothing around a stairwell”.
Layla Beck, as the daughter of a wealthy senator is a young woman of privileged background. When she refused to marry the man of her father’s choice, he cut off the allowance of his spoiled and frivolous daughter. Thus it is that Layla is banished from Washington, D.C. and is commissioned to write the town’s history as part of the Federal Writer’s Project. She is to be a boarder in the home of the Romeyns.
Upon arriving in Macedonia, Layla soon learns that the history she is to write has been dictated by the town’s ‘families of influence’. Namely she is to write of their families histories and give a glorified version of the town’s historical events.
“the town council prefers to pretend that it has no Negro population, so Layla won’t be required to record their history.”
Layla feels it is her duty to the citizens to make the true history of Macedonia known. When she becomes interested in writing a more accurate picture of the town she is admonished “There is a fine line between history and gossip”.
The Romeyn’s were once a respectable family in Macedonia, but events have transpired that their respectability has faded like the paint on their house. Their household is comprised of Willa and her younger sister, Bird, her father’s sisters Jottie, and the twin aunts Mae and Minerva, and of course, her father Felix when he is not away traveling… Their late father had once ran the mill, so they had status within the community at that time.
The American Everlasting Hosiery Company employs around one thousand men, at a time when so many are unemployed. They had to sign an employment agreement that they would never unionize… Back in 1920 the mill burned, changing the history of the town, and the Romeyn family forever.
Layla Beck has lovely clothes and refined manners and the twins Mae and Minerva are quite jealous.
“Minerva and Mae exchanged smug glances, the girl’s discomfort adding some minor honey to the uniform sourness of their grapes.”
Willa is a precocious and very intelligent girl of twelve years. She is a voracious reader and has read almost everything the small town library has to offer. Her character reminded me somewhat of the talkative Anne, of “Anne of Green Gables” fame. It is when Layla Beck comes to live in their house that Willa decides that she is tired of being treated as a child. She wants to be privy to the secrets that the adults in her life hold. She becomes quite concerned when Layla Beck shows an undue interest in her father, Felix.
“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel”
I loved many of the characters in this novel, but my favorite was probably Jottie. A woman in her late thirties, Jottie had known and lost love, and now was considered an ‘old maid’. She gave up on her dream of going to college to stay home and care for her parents. Now she keeps the Romeyn family home and acts as surrogate mother to Willa and Bird. She wants a bigger life, but has come to understand that her wishes will never be realized. She doesn’t let her bitterness show. Her love for Willa is fierce and protective, and despite the fact that she disagrees with Felix’s life style, she is loyal to her brother in return for a perceived past debt.
“Ladies don’t smoke in public, Jottie said. In public included a lot of places, even our front room because of all the windows, so Jottie smoked like a stack in the kitchen.”
Willa was enchanting. While trying to decipher the mysterious adult world, she relates: “I tried to look innocent but not idiotic, which is uphill work”. She has a book in her hands at all times and laments that she cannot read and walk at the same time successfully. She has read “Jane Eyre” three times. She is wise beyond her years.
This is a slow paced novel of a family sewn together with loyalty, yet encumbered by all the tragedy, shame, and secrecy that could rend them apart at a moment’s notice. It is a story that expounds on the theory that no one can be entirely objective and that “all history is suspect“.
“Loyalty does not mean falling into line,
but stepping out of it for the ones you love.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, though I found it to be overly long. It could have done without some of the peripheral character’s stories and still told the tale just as well. The language was marvelous, so if you are into beautiful prose, you’ll find it fantastic. If you want to be transported to a small town with some captivating characters, then this novel is for you!
Layla Beck wants to be a part of the Romeyn family – after reading this novel you will too.
I received a digital copy of this novel from Doubleday (Random House UK, Transworld Publishers) via NetGalley in consideration of an honest review.
Compare the covers for “The Truth According to Us“. Which do YOU prefer?
My first choice is the Doubleday version, my second choice would be the Dial Press trade paperback version.
Annie Barrows was born in 1962 in San Diego, California, but quickly moved to a small town called San Anselmo in the San Francisco Bay Area. She spent most of her childhood at the library. She wouldn’t leave, so they hired her to shelve books at the age of twelve.
In 1996, Annie received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Mills College and had a baby, a confluence of events that persuaded her to leave editorial work and move into writing.
She is the author of The Ivy + Bean series for children, several non-fiction titles, and is of course, the co-author of the best-selling “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society“.
Annie lives in Northern California with her husband and two daughters.