The Truth According To Us, Annie Barrows, read by Ann Marie Lee, Tara Sands, Julia Whelan and others.
There are two tales interwoven into this book; one takes place in 1938 and the other in 1920. Twelve year old Willa Romeyn, a precocious, curious young preteen, who narrates the story, and Layla Beck, a young woman who is on relief and is working for the WPA, are both completely blindsided by their innocent and naïve appraisal of the world around them. As both explore the secrets of the town, each pursuing their own purpose, one eavesdropping and spying and the other interviewing and conversing, they expose mysteries, secrets and lies, in their quest for the truth. There are moments of pathos, joy, disappointment, grief, success, and failure. As the stories unfold, they make a compelling romance and mystery that will keep the reader completely engaged.
In the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia, there are many likeable characters, although some are quirky and some seem to be really objectionable, Even the most evil, though, somehow, have redeeming features. The town itself is not always welcoming to residents or strangers. Tongues wag and small town gossip is widespread, but so is the warmth and embrace of small town life which the author has very deftly captured.
In 1920, the death of Vause Hamilton, in a mill fire, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, has never really been resolved to the satisfaction of some of the townsfolk. Conspiracy theories abound almost two decades later. In 1938, the Romeyn family that used to own the mill is no longer prominent in town. To make ends meet, Jottie Romeyn takes in a boarder, Layla Beck. Jottie, a spinster, is raising two young girls, Willa and Bird Romeyn, the children of her brother Felix. His wife, Sylvia, is no longer present in the home. Living in the house with Jottie and the girls are Felix, Jottie’s sisters, and twins Minerva and Mae, who only stay there during the week. Jottie’s other brother, Emmet Romeyn, is also a frequent visitor. Macedonian daily life deals with day to day survival, town projects, and the business of the mill, which is run by an authoritarian cold, businessman, Ralph Shank. Mr. Romeyn, the former owner, was kinder and gentler. He genuinely cared about the employees and their families more than his bottom line. The townspeople are all still reeling from The Great Depression, feeling the abstinence of Prohibition, and wondering about the gossip they hear concerning the Nazis and anti-Semitism, as Europe heats up for a war.
Layla Beck is the daughter of a well-known Senator. Because she failed to accept a marriage proposal from a very eligible bachelor and is doing nothing productive in her life, her father gave up on her, tossed her out and discontinued all forms of income. Because he was so disappointed with her behavior, he felt he had to teach her a hard lesson. He leaned upon his brother who headed up the WPA, to find her employment. Without income, she was forced to go on relief, take public funds, and also take the job, at her uncle’s urging. Her assignment was to write a book on the history of the town of Macedonia, West Virginia, in honor of its sesquitennial celebration. At first, she was furious about having to work in such a remote place doing such a boring job and was unimpressed by the townsfolk with whom she mixed. Soon, though, after soliciting her friends and family for help and being roundly turned down, she accepted her situation, and after meeting the Romeyn family, she began to enjoy the work and interactions with them. As they embraced her as one of them, she began to enjoy, rather than resent, her situation.
As Layla worked to discover the secrets of the Romeyn family and the town, Willa, who disliked Layla, viewing her as a threat to her relationship with her dad, used her charm and curiosity to ferret out information about her father’s secret life, the life that she did not share with him. Both Layla and Willa were more and more determined to sort through the rumors and rout out the actual facts. They both found, however, that sometimes you have to be careful about what you wish for because the information sought may not be what is expected, and it may hurt, rather than help, when things don’t turn out as hoped. The warmth and small town lifestyle shine through, as do Willa’s simple explanations for living life, for handling life’s troubles in the only way one can, for doing the best one can do, after all, was all that one could do, according to her philosophy. While both Layla and Willa make impetuous decisions with unexpected consequences, they both learn from the experiences in their own way, and both, although in different generations, come of age.
The mystery surrounding Vause, the reason Jottie was a spinster, the answer to the question of why Felix did not work in the mill his father once owned, are all resolved when secrets are revealed through Layla’s open research and Willa’s own particular way of investigating. As the history and secrets are unmasked, there is shock, disbelief and also despair. Still, with Willa’s unending ability to find a bright side, there is also hope for the truth when it is uncovered.
The letters that flew between Layla and her friends and family truly enhanced the novel. They were witty, poignant and thought provoking as her past was slowly unrolled. They further explained the differences in the lives of those in big cities when compared to small towns. Expectations were totally different for each class. The tongue in cheek humor illustrated in Jottie’s conversations and Willa’s mischievous behavior, curiosity and escapades followed by her excuses for her actions, will warm the reader’s heart. The characters were really well developed. I felt as if I knew them and experienced what they were going through. The charm of the town life and its residents, who appreciated the simple things, just might make some readers yearn for yesteryear and the simpler life of a town like Macedonia, warts and all. Truth, in the end, is found in different forms, in the eye, ear and tongue of each beholder.
I wish that there had been more of Layla’s witty correspondence with her friends and family. They were so enlightening about people’s behavior and preferences. Book groups will have a field day discussing the women’s issues brought up in the book. For many housework and husbands were the only possible goals; for others, it was social life, entertaining and needlework. Book groups can discuss the merits of independence, the benefits of good parenting, the dangers of sibling rivalry, and the pitfalls of parent child relationships. Then, of course, they can discuss each person’s own interpretation of the meaning of truth in any given situation; then they can discuss the possible value of lies.