In 2008, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” was celebrated by readers around the world. The heartwarming story centered on members of a clandestine book club living on the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands during World War II. But the novel’s back story had its own drama in the United States. Mary Ann Shaffer, the primary author, fell ill before the book was ready for publication. Her niece Annie Barrows, a noted children’s author, completed it. Now, drawing inspiration from her late aunt’s home state of West Virginia, Barrows has written her first adult novel. It’s as delightfully eccentric as “Guernsey” yet refreshingly different.
“The Truth According To Us” takes place in 1938 in the fictional town of Macedonia, W.Va. It’s an epic but intimate family novel with richly imagined characters, an intriguing plot and the social sensibilities you would expect of a story set in the South.
The stars of this small-town drama are the members of the quirky Romeyn clan, whose history is revealed mostly through the eyes of its women. But we also hear from city girl Layla Beck, daughter of a U.S. senator, who is exiled to rural Macedonia by her father after she turns down a marriage proposal he thought she was foolish to refuse.
Daddy thinks Layla could learn a lot from holding down a job, and she finds employment through the Federal Writers’ Project, which created jobs for historians, librarians and writers during the Depression. Barrows’s thorough research on the writers’ project and the time period brings the economic woes of 1938 America to life.
For Layla, who becomes a paying guest in the Romeyns’ home, working in Macedonia feels, at first, like a prison sentence. She’s there to write a history of the town in honor of its sesquicentennial, but she doesn’t look forward to “taking down the reminiscences of a town full of toothless old hicks. . . . I don’t know why the federal government wants a record of these people, I really don’t.”
And no one expects her to succeed. According to her uncle, Layla “is spoiled, frivolous, and ignorant, and she’s exactly as fit to work on the project as a chicken is to drive a Buick.” That may be true at first, but by book’s end, she and the Romeyns will be inextricably joined, stereotypes will be smashed, and a family’s 18-year-old secrets will be revealed.
While collecting material for her book, Layla realizes that “a successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.” Those words apply just as easily to the spark-filled story Barrows recounts in this novel.
Many tragedies haunt the Romeyns, including the dissolution of Felix and Sylvia Romeyn’s marriage. Sylvia abandoned Felix and their daughters for another man. The traumatized girls, Willa and Bird, are exquisitely portrayed and the lasting damage caused by the abandonment is sensitively rendered. Willa’s indomitable spirit, keen sense of adventure and innate intelligence reminded me of two other motherless girls in literature: Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s big-hearted British mystery series.
If “Guernsey” is a tribute to the power of books, “The Truth According To Us” is a testament to the toxicity of secrets. Jottie, Felix’s sister, is a beautiful and loving woman, but like most of these characters, she carries the weight of the unresolved past. Eighteen years after tragically losing the love of her life, she’s raising her nieces in the home she shares with Felix. Why has she never married or had a life of her own?
The languid pace of the first half of “The Truth According to Us” fits its steamy August setting. Just as we did in “Guernsey,” we empathize with the characters as if they’re our neighbors. As the story’s pace speeds up and confrontations explode, the Romeyns’ history unravels, and we can’t help but feel sorry for this family burned by incendiary secrets.
Macedonia is a great place to spend some time this summer. The temperatures are soaring, but it’s nothing compared to the heat generated by this sizzling story.
Memmott’s reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune.
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