American novelists have a fondness for the youthful narrator. Think how many classic Americans novels are told by children or adolescents: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to list a few. The device is difficult to pull off, because although adults in the novel treat the juvenile narrator with condescension, the reader must never be tempted to do so.
In The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows creates a worthy successor to Lee’s beloved Scout Finch. Twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn is growing up during the Depression in one of the four counties that “stuck out their tongues at West Virginia and declared themselves part of the Confederacy, a piece of sass with long consequences in the way of road-paving and school desks.”
Like Scout, Willa is being raised without a mother, though her father, Felix, is the antithesis of Atticus Finch. (True to the Latin origins of his first name, catlike Felix Romeyn is sly, sleek and predatory; Atticus Finch’s surname is a type of songbird.) And like Scout, Willa’s awakening — or, as she puts it, “when I realized I was being lied to” — is catalyzed by the appearance of a stranger in town.
Spoiled, glamorous Layla Beck is a senator’s daughter who has wangled a job with the Federal Writer’s Project. When she is assigned to write the history of Macedonia, Willa’s hometown, Layla becomes a boarder in the Romeyn house. As Layla researches Macedonia, Willa begins to look more deeply into her own family’s story.
This story, as Willa discovers, is full of gaps. First, there’s the question of what her father really does for a living. (This is soon obvious to the reader even if Willa doesn’t catch on at first, which is one of the book’s few missteps.) Then there’s the issue of why Willa’s beloved Aunt Jottie has never married. Willa’s determination to “learn those truths that grownups try to hide” has greater consequences for the town of Macedonia than Layla Beck’s earnest reporting. As Willa later reflects, “This is what’s called the enigma of history, and it can drive you right out of your mind if you let it.”
Fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which Barrows co-authored with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, will want to add The Truth According to Us to their reading lists. As in Guernsey, Barrows lets the story unfold partly through the correspondence of a main character — in this case, Layla Beck. And Depression-era Macedonia is as deftly drawn as the World War II Channel Islands in Barrows’ earlier novel. Take this description of the after-dinner routine in the Romeyns’ neighborhood:
“Up and down Academy Street, supper was drawing to a close, the last brittle ping of spoons sounding on coffee cups, the collective woody rumble of chairs moving away from tables. The houses that lined the street looked alike in the thickening light, their massive horizontal bulk broken by golden rectangles of windows and doors. And now, as one, they began to disgorge their inhabitants, pouring them out into screened porches to lower themselves into wicker divans and decrepit rockers. Voices, high and low, wheeled like bats over the wide lawns.”
Then, Jottie muses on the significance of it all: “She watched her nieces commencing their nightly rite of selecting chairs. They were young and they didn’t understand. They believed that one chair was better than another. … Like crows, they picked out bits from each evening and lugged them around, thinking they were hoarding treasure … not knowing that it was all one, that each tiny vibration of difference would be sanded, over the course of years, into sameness. It doesn’t matter, Jottie assured herself. … Later, they’ll understand that the sameness is the important part.”
The Truth According to Us has all the characteristics of a great summer read: A plot that makes you want to keep turning the pages; a setting that makes you feel like you’re inhabiting another time and place; and characters who become people you’re sad to leave behind — and thus who always stay with you.
As Jottie tells Willa at the beginning of the book, the “Macedonian virtues” are ferocity and devotion. The Truth According to Us is the sort of book that inspires both.
Gigi Lehman is a writer in San Antonio, Texas.
Meet the author
Who: Annie Barrows.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.
Cost: Free, but must RSVP at www.booksandbooks.com.