History is what we make it

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I approached this book with hope but also some trepidation, having loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so much that I read it in print AND listened to it as an audio book. Annie Barrows co-wrote that wonderful book with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer. As its many fans will recall, that book is an epistolary historical novel told through fictional letters from and to a variety of characters. Barrows’ new book uses a few letters, and also a variety of points of view through first- and third-person narration. Thus, Barrows’ new book is different from the beloved Potato Peel, yet it has much of the same charm, wit and wisdom. I need not have worried.

THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO US. By Annie Barrows. Read by Ann Marie Lee, Tara Sands, Julie Whelan and others. Random House Audio. 15 CDs; 19 hours. $58. Also available in print from The Dial Press, 512 pages. $28.

It’s 1938, and the Great Depression still has the United States firmly in its grip. Normally, such grim realities would have little or no effect on Layla Beck, the daughter of a U.S. senator. But Layla has declined to marry the man of her parents’ choice, and her father is determined to teach her a lesson. He cuts off her generous allowance and pulls strings to secure her a job with the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program. Layla is neither really impoverished nor a writer, but she’s sent to the middle of nowhere to write the history of Macedonia, West Virginia.

Macedonia is a textile mill town, more Southern in spirit and manners than much of West Virginia. There, Layla rents a room from the Romeyn family, once among the town’s most prominent, but now struggling with some hard times of its own.

Layla learns a great deal during her time in Macedonia, although not the lessons her father had in mind. For one thing, she learns that just because a town is small and remote from the upper crust of Washington and the Northeast does not mean that its residents are benighted and its society is boring.

Her hosts, the Romeyns, are particularly intriguing, especially Felix, the elder brother. Felix lives in the family home, along with Willa and Bird, his two young daughters from his failed marriage. Felix loses no time in putting his considerable charms to work on Layla – when he’s not off on his mysterious, unpredictable and possibly illegal business trips. The girls, meanwhile, are being raised by Jottie, the eldest Romeyn daughter, who has a number of mysteries of her own, including whatever has kept her from marrying and having a life of her own.

It doesn’t take Layla long to figure out that there are lots of secrets in Macedonia, and that some of them are intertwined with the secrets within the Romeyn family. History, she realizes, is not an absolute set of facts, but rather depends upon who’s doing the telling, and what is included.

Layla is not the only one trying to learn the truths within the Romeyn family and the larger community. Willa, who’s 12, smart and sensitive, has decided that she’s tired of adults keeping secrets and shielding her. Determined to get to the bottom of things this summer, she finds that she’s quite good at snooping. Willa’s parts of the story, told in first-person, are endearing. Her voice is reminiscent of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, and a bit like what Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird might sound like when she’s a few years older. Willa’s tales are woven skillfully among third-person accounts, largely focusing on Layla and Jottie, and occasional correspondence.

Gently humorous tales of Macedonia and its inhabitants, past and present, leaven the emerging mystery. Gradually, light begins to shine on some of the darker secrets from the past, and then life-changing truths emerge.

The audio version of the book is especially delightful, with multiple readers bringing the characters and the town to life.

The only – minor – criticism I have is that, at 512 page or 19 hours of listening time, the book is a bit long. For most of the way, the story and the characters were so engaging that I didn’t notice, but the pace slowed after the climactic scene.

 

 

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