Editor’s Note: Our latest WEEREAD book review features Annie Barrow’s novel: The Truth According to Us. WEEREAD reviewer, Anna Cipoletti, shares her commentary after reading this Depression-era historical fiction that explores the secrets of a family living in the fictional town of Macedonia, WV. This fun, light read would be the perfect fit for your summer book club or solo reading.
New York, 1938. After a social misstep, senator’s daughter and socialite Layla Beck is cut off from the family funds and forced to take a job with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. A sheltered 20-something with lofty connections, Layla expects strings to be pulled in her favor to procure a cushy secretarial job in D. C. Instead, she is assigned to Macedonia, West Virginia to write a history of the town in time for its sesquicentennial celebration. It is here that she borders with the Romeyns, a once prominent family who has not been spared by the Depression—or the town’s rumor mill.
The house is inhabited by Felix, a mysterious but charming man; his two daughters, 12-year-old Willa and 10-year-old Bird; and his younger sister Jottie. Felix often travels on undisclosed business (more fodder for the rumor mill, along with his recent divorce) leaving Jottie as the primary caretaker for her nieces. The house sees a revolving door of other Romeyn family members, including Felix and Jottie’s younger brother Emmett and twin sisters Minerva and Mae. Despite having a sometimes-strained relationship with the townsfolk, the Romeyn clan is very close-knit and easily welcome Layla into the fold.
As Layla researches the town’s history for her book, she begins to learn that, although the Romeyns were omitted from the town council’s list of “illustrious families,” the history of the Romeyns and Macedonia are considerably intertwined. Founded by Jottie’s late father, the hosiery mill American Everlasting remains the town’s largest industry and employer—as well as the site of the town’s most infamous scandal. Through newspaper clippings Layla gleans information about an event she’s only heard hinted about: the fire that erupted at American Everlasting and caused the tragic death of Macedonia’s golden boy, Vause Hamilton. Fresh off his return from the Great War, Vause was believed guilty of robbing and presumably burning the mill only to be trapped and killed amid the blaze. A childhood friend of Felix and Jottie, Vause’s actions seemed the ultimate betrayal, though suspicions regarding Felix’s whereabouts at the time of the fire still burned.
While Layla learns about the town (and dances around a romance with Felix), Willa begins her own earnest efforts to understand her family’s history. Intelligent and well-read, Willa decides that the best way to find answers was not to ask adults directly (as they too often dodged the question) but to sneak and snoop around. But as her uncle Emmett advises, “don’t ask questions if you’re not going to like the answers.” Though the advice mystifies Willa at the time, she eventually comes to realize that Emmett’s warning rang true.
Meanwhile, Jottie worries about the town’s rumor mill and the negative effect it may have on her nieces as they grow up and become more self-aware. In an attempt to rectify the family’s reputation, she takes up with a childhood friend, Sol, who has long carried a torch for her. An upstanding member of society, Sol is Jottie’s best way back into the town’s good graces, but it puts her at odds with Felix, as Sol had accused him of abetting a crime. Torn between wanting Felix’s approval and a good life for Willa and Bird, Jottie struggles to decide if Sol is worth the risk and if she can ever move on from her long-gone paramour, Vause.
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Unlike Willa and even Layla, Jottie understands the danger of asking questions that may have unpleasant answers. It is why she doesn’t push about Felix’s intentionally vague business and how exactly he makes his money. It’s also why she doesn’t ask if the rumors regarding his involvement in the robbery and fire that led to Vause’s untimely death. Secrets, however, can only stay buried for so long. And as Layla, Willa, and Jottie’s investigations interweave, they find themselves asking hard questions—and hearing difficult answers that may shatter long-held beliefs.
Told from the alternating points of view of Layla, Jottie, and Willa, The Truth According to Us is an engrossing and moving novel that considers how a story changes depending on who is telling it. From the get-go the reader sees various forces trying to shape the story: the town council of Macedonia supplies Layla a list of families to include in the history and indicates which neighborhoods should be omitted. Felix and Jottie’s “truths” are shaped by long-standing lies and omissions, without which the family would break apart. And though Layla initially believes she is capable of objectivity as an outsider, she is warned by town librarian Miss Betts that “All of us see a story according to our own lights. None of us is capable of objectivity.”
For me, The Truth According to Us checked a lot of my book boxes: it’s set in West Virginia (though the town of Macedonia is fictitious), it has to do with the New Deal (a random niche interest of mine), and features a knowledgeable and helpful librarian (as a librarian myself, I admittedly loved this portrayal of my profession). I also enjoyed the alternating points of view and the fact that the narrators were at different stages in their lives: it was a coming-of-age story for Willa, a new adult story for Layla, and a second-chances story for Jottie.
Considering that The Truth According to Us was author Annie Barrows’ second venture into adult fiction and her first solo work, I found it to be a very strong debut. The dialogue was wonderfully funny and the story was kept afloat by the thread of mystery throughout. Barrows’ writing style, humor, and setting also reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, which heightened my enjoyment of the novel. This would be a fun, light read for a book club, and The Dial Press edition includes a reader’s guide to help facilitate discussion. I strongly recommend The Truth According to Us to solo readers and book clubs alike.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and part-time as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.