Annie Barrows’ The Truth According to Us presents a complex story in what we moderns always like to call “a simpler time.” By which we mean small town life peopled by nuclear families where the parents mate for life and families cluster around the gazebo for summer band concerts, ice cream cones stickily in hand.
Macedonia, West Virginia is nothing like that, though many would like to pretend so. At the outset, we join the Romeyn family, introduced to us by 9-year-old Willa. She lives with her younger sister, a “maiden” aunt and two twin aunts who are married but whose husbands get seen only on weekends because the twins prefer each other’s company to that of their spouses. Willa adores her father, the brother of the aunts, but sees him irregularly because of his unnamed and mysterious profession. Her mother is divorced from her father, lives in another town with her new husband, and seldom sees the girls.
It was once said that a story can have two main frameworks. One, someone goes on a journey. Two, a stranger comes to town. Truth falls into the second category. We’re in the depression 1930’s, and come one summer blue blood Layla Beck, cut off by her Senator father for refusing to marry the family choice of for a groom, Thus, is packed off to Macedonia by the WPA and commissioned to write a history of the town in honor of its fall sesquicentennial
Layla is gorgeous but proves to be not just another pretty face. Despite many troubles adjusting to her situation, she begins to take her job seriously. Much too seriously for the liking of the town fathers and of the Romeyn family, with whom she is rooming. The pulls at secrets like a loose piece of yarn and the town’s respectability begins to unravel like an old sweater.
It’s a yeasty situation Barrows sets up here, and it rises into a very tasty loaf. If Willa’s voice sometimes exceeds 9-year-old believability [Rightness is nothing You can’t live on it. You might as well eat ashes. … This is all we can do. … We can’t go back. The only time leaves for us is to decide.] and if some of the resolutions don’t fall in the realm of believable human behavior, the strength of its characters is such that the book largely succeeds. And succeeds admirably.