Book Review: ‘The Truth According to Us’
July 8, 2015
The setting for Annie Barrow's "The Truth According to Us," fictional Macedonia, West Virginia, and the Vail Valley share a delightful small-town vibe. Residents can run into a dentist in the post office, a high school principle at the florist and a mayor at the Fourth of July parade.
In such intimate environments, secrets can be hard to keep — especially from inquisitive Willa Romeyn.
In 1938, 12-year-old Willa decides that it's time to grow up. With the searing insight peculiar to an observant adolescent, she has begun to recognize the nuances and awkward gaps in adult conversations, particularly those referring to her quirky, once-prominent family.
When the 30-something Romeyn matriarch, Aunt Jottie, announces she's taking a boarder to help make ends meet at the end of the Great Depression, intuitive Willa is suspicious. Layla Beck arrives fresh from the cinder-regurgitating train wearing a pristine white suit. Willa makes her first impression sporting a knee dripping blood into her sock after a rough encounter with someone else's bicycle.
The young socialite has been exiled to Macedonia "on relief" after a disagreement with her senator father, who has cut off her funds. Disguising these affluent roots, Layla will be documenting town history as part of President Roosevelt's Federal Writers' Project — an assignment sure to unearth more than a few skeletons in the Macedonian closet.
Willa's feckless father, Felix, is one such bag of bones, skittering in and out of the household, dodging murderous rumors about a fire at the family textile mill 18 years earlier. His lecherous interest in Layla increases Willa's dislike, even though her bootlegging dad is a cad.
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When questions about the death of unflappable Jottie's teenage love surfaces, Willa begins to see her aunt as more than a simple caregiver to she and her younger sister, Bird. Uncle Emmett, whose sturdy kindness offsets Felix's passive-aggressive love, has socialistic secrets at the intersection of union and labor. His conflict presents the social context of the hardscrabble New Deal era in human terms.
These characters live uneasily with the weight of their tightly knotted pasts, but fit comfortably in the detailed atmosphere of "The Truth According to Us." As each steamy day closes and cicadas begin to whirr, Willa hears the scraping sounds of families hauling rockers onto wooden porches. They talk in the cool evening air, and kids catch fireflies, until bedtime. Neighbors visit after supper, greeting each other with, "How-you?" A pitcher of iced tea is omnipresent, offered with peach pie or cookies.
The languid pace and skillful character development lulls readers into caring about each resident of Macedonia. The author Barrows, who completed the bestselling "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" when her aunt, author Mary Ann Shaffer, became ill, does a masterful job with Willa and her narrative. The female voices are straight from Southern society (bless their hearts). Barrows' gift with dialogue — the unique cadence of each speaker and the expression of humorous thoughts and painful choices — makes "The Truth According to Us" a summer-reading treasure.
While Macedonia doesn't offer world-class symphonies or symposiums, and accommodations are more "boarder" than five-star, the camaraderie of the little town will feel familiar to frequent visitors and residents of the Vail Valley. So this summer, when you greet a neighbor at a Bravo! Vail concert or pass your doctor as you bike up Vail Pass, offer a friendly "How-you?" in honor of the few places remaining where community is a way of life.
"The Truth According to Us," published by Penguin Random House, is available at The Bookworm of Edwards and other booksellers.
Eagle County resident NLB Horton (NLBHorton.com) is the author of two successful works of international suspense, "When Camels Fly" and "The Brothers' Keepers." Both are available at The Bookworm of Edwards and at other booksellers, and her third book will be released in 2016.