The Stories We Hide

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The Story

Everyone has secrets they want to keep.
Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town.
Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence.
Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is.
This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies?
One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa, it’s the way to demystify her family’s past.
Where does Father go when he vanishes for weeks at a time? Why does he leave his kids with Aunt Jottie?  Why doesn’t Aunt Jottie have a family and kids of her own?  At the age of twelve, Willa’s beginning to notice how the people she loves the most avoid certain topics of conversation.  In fact, sometimes they lie.  With the Macedonian virtue of ferocious devotion, Willa decides to unearth the facts and learns that truth can come at a terrible cost, even while it sets you free.

The Truth Behind the Story

On a side-note, The Truth According to Us highlights an obscure bit of history, The Federal Writers Project. I know the notion of a federal program subsidizing writers may give some people indigestion, but it was a good idea at the time.  For meager wages, writers documented histories of places and individuals that usually wouldn’t get covered: guides were written about every state in the union, and the oral histories of former slaves were transcribed. Valuable information that would have been lost altogether was saved by this work, and it trained more than a few writers that went on to literary glory including Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Today, our culture still enjoys the benefits of what that agency did more than eighty years ago. Not bad for a short-term, New-Deal program.
But this is background.  The Truth According to Us is what happens when a fresh light is shed on a mythology created by resentment and shame. Passions heat up faster than the dog days of summer. It’s perfect for an August read.

The Story My Mom Would Have Loved

How to talk about a story with the improbable title of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society?  That question’s been baffling me for days.  I have to talk about it because it’s the best book I’ve picked up in recent memory, and it has not one but several stories worth telling.  I want to talk about it because it refers to may subjects I hold dear.  But, more than anything, I want to say this is one book my mom would have loved.

As a girl, my mom spent two years in England, before the Beatles but after the War.  To say those years made an impression on her is like saying the Colorado River had an effect on some of the topography in Arizona.  For the rest of her life, she maintained a lively and affectionate interest in the fortunes of Great Britain and everyone who had ever lived there.  But, even though she saw England recovering from World War II, I don’t think she knew about what happened to the Channel Islands during the conflict.  I know she never mentioned it to me.  That’s one reason why The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is so important.
We all know that the Third Reich’s armies marched west across Europe until they reached Dunkirk/Dunkerque, France.  Did you know they didn’t stop at the French edge of the Channel? Nope, neither did I. They continued their mainland invasion onto the Channel Islands which became the only British Territory occupied by the Nazis during WWII.  Once the invading force landed, all of the communication and shipping lines between the Islands and England were cut.  Islanders who evacuated their children to England didn’t know if their kids were living or dead, sometimes for years.  Between the blockade cutting off their usual supply lines, and the food and livestock commandeered by the occupying army, those who stayed had very little to eat. Germans shipped the Jewish Island dwellers to concentration camps and brought in their own prisoner/slave laborers to be worked to death there instead. Residents of Guernsey and Jersey and more had to find a way to survive five years worth of this misery. It wasn’t easy.  This book remembers part of that story.

The GL&PPPS is also about life after the war and how people learn to live with their memories. Everyone in the book has experienced loss and traumatic memories that many of them would rather forget.   Of course, such things cannot be forgotten, but some of these folks learn to work through their pain with the wisdom they accidently saw in some book.  GL&PPS is, in many ways, a love letter to the books, and readers, and writers that get us through the rough times.  Even the story behind the book is enchanting.
If you notice, the cover art in the picture above says Mary Ann Shaffer is this story’s sole author but the cover here says it was written by two people: Ms. Shaffer and one Annie Barrows.  The epilog, I’d guess you’d say, of GL&PPS, is the story of these two, and a story that was too good to die. I’m won’t tell you more, except to say the tale is good and warming enough to be included in the GL&PPS.
My mom and I didn’t agree on everything. In fact, I think we fought through my entire adolescence. I didn’t always understand her. Still, she was my first teacher and my touchstone on a great many things and that hasn’t changed in the years since her death. I know she would have loved this tale of survival and serendipity, and how books can help you during the worst of times. And she’d want everyone else in the world to read it.