The Truth According to Us

by Annie Barrows


Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson


When The Truth According to Us came to an end, I didn't want it to. I had fallen in love with all the characters, flawed as they were, and wanted to stay with them. That said, the novel's conclusion tied things up in a satisfying way: a bit surprising, entirely believable, and with a feeling of grace and warmth.

The setting is the fictional West Virginia town of Macedonia in the summer of 1938. Times are hard for the Romeyn family, not least because of a tragic event nineteen years before, which is not spoken of, except obliquely. Twelve-year-old Willa, daughter of traveling salesman Felix, is consumed with curiosity about the secrets she feels sure her Aunt Jottie is hiding from her, and decides to find out the truth. Meanwhile, Layla Beck, the pampered daughter of a rich New Jersey man, has refused to marry according to her father's wishes. He cuts off her allowance and arranges for her to get a job with the Federal Writers' Project, which sends her to Macedonia to research and write a history of the town for its sesquicentennial celebration.

The novel is full of wry humor. Macedonia's head councilman expects Layla to steer clear of certain sensitive subjects and stress beloved myths, like the "valor and derring-do" of his ancestor, the town's founder. While Layla begins to uncover alternative, less complimentary traditions, Willa begins to learn bits and pieces that contradict the vague reassurances Jottie has given her about her father's travels, her mother's absence, and their family's loss of status since the time when her grandfather ran the local factory. Although the reader, like Layla and Willa, burns with curiosity, The Truth According to Us asks: Is it always good to know the truth, or are the times when it either cannot or should not be learned? To its credit, the novel doesn't force one answer or the other, but leaves the question for readers to ponder. (2015; 491 pages, including an Acknowledgments section discussing the facts behind the fiction)

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Other novels set during the Great Depression:

The River Widow by Ann Howard Creel (2018), about a woman who in 1937 accidentally kills her abusive husband, and then makes a plan to save herself and her daughter from the man's cruel family, as she begins falling in love with a man crucial to her escape. More info.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (2013), about a mother who belongs to the American Communist Party and her children over the decades, beginning in the 1930s. More info.

Washington D.C. by Gore Vidal (1976), about a conservative senator with presidential ambitions, a congressional aide, and a newspaper tycoon during the 1930s into the 1950s. More info.


Nonfiction about Depression-era West Virginia and the Federal Writers' Project:

The Dream and the Deal by Jerre Mangione (1972). More info

An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression by Jerry Bruce Thomas (1998). More info

Historic Romney by the Federal Writers' Project (1937). More info


Online:

Federal Writers' Project at the Library of Congress website


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