The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society author’s new novel examines how we view history through a charming cast of characters and a plot that hinges around the Federal Writers Project.
Lots of writers start a new book with a character or plot idea in mind. For Annie Barrows, it was a state and a year that formed the basis for her latest book The Truth According to Us. Barrows is a California native who lives in Berkeley, but her mother and aunt Mary Ann Shaffer (her co-author on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society) grew up in West Virginia. She happened to pay a visit home with them in 2008 and realized she wanted to write about life in a small town just like theirs.
“West Virginia was very handy for me because I knew so much about it, but it’s also kind of an under-recorded state if you know what I mean,” she says. “You read a lot about New York, you read a lot about California, you read a lot about Florida, but you just don’t find that many books about West Virginia, particularly books that don’t have coal miners in them.”
To find a crux for her story, Barrows turned to the Federal Writers Project. Established in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and part of the Works Progress Administration, the project compiled local and oral histories as a way to support writers during the Great Depression. Barrows didn’t know much about it, but needed a reason for an outsider to come to the fictional small town she was creating.
“I thought what on earth would induce anybody to come to Macedonia, West Virginia?” she says. A visit to the University of California Library turned up a booklet called “Historic Romney,” essentially a history of a small town in West Virginia produced by the Federal Writers Project. From there, she got into some of the more glamorous elements, such as the famous writers like Richard Wright, John Cheever and Zora Neale Hurston that it employed, but that wasn’t what she was interested in. “I wanted the little administrative stuff,” she says.
Barrows sent her sister in Washington, D.C., to the Library of Congress to find internal memos and instructions on writing guides like the Romney one she found. Letters based on real-life correspondence from the project pepper the novel, lending an air of authenticity to Barrows’ fictional world and instructions on how to create “a dignified yet lively recounting of its history.”
“I think,” she said to Miss Betts, “that if history were defined as only those stories that could be absolutely verified, we’d have no history at all.” – Layla, Chapter 19
From there, her character of spoiled Senator’s daughter Layla Beck developed, along with the Romeyn family — a nontraditional household of brother Felix, sister Jottie, twins Minverva and Mae, who go home to their husbands on weekends, and Felix’s daughters Willa and Bird. Layla finds herself assigned to write a history of the small mill town of Macedonia and placed with the Romeyns as a boarder during her stay. Inside the household, 12-year-old Willa is investigating the questionable business that occupies her bachelor father and the reason her Aunt Jottie remains unmarried at age 35.
Layla arrives with plenty of pre-conceived notions about West Virginia, and Barrows felt entitled to play around with these stereotypes given the part of the state she had experienced growing up. “It’s just so funny when you talk about West Virginia,” she says. “People’s eyes do glaze over a little bit. They just start thinking coal mines, coal mines, coal mines, especially if you think about the thirties, and that is just so totally different from the part of West Virginia that I knew and where my mom grew up. Of course that’s true of any geographical region you know intimately. Once you really know what you’re talking about, you realize how wrong the public perception is. Extremely local history is always very individual and very proud.”
How I wish that Mother had never read Tobacco Road. No matter what I say, she thinks that I’m working in the fields, bending over rows of turnips in a ripped cotton dress while lascivious farmers eye my youthful form and squirt tobacco juice between their front teeth.” – Layla, Chapter 19
Through her research, Layla encounters plenty of proud town residents more than willing to share their own version of local history. Barrows says her Macedonia is a mashup of Romney and Martinsburg in the mountainous northeastern part of the state. She did manage to weave in a few real-life landmarks, like Ice Mountain, a place where ice is found even on the hottest summer days, but it was the time period that took the most time to research.
When she thought about 1938, Barrows pictured the Depression coming to an end and World War II imminent, but that was about it. Life magazine was her window into the era when Hitler was a concern right along with teenaged girls wearing sunglasses. “The landscape just became so much clearer to me and that was hugely important for what my characters were thinking and talking about and what they thought their reality was,” she says. “I also read a bunch of books and watched a bunch of movies and read newspapers and looked at Sears catalogs. You could order practically an entire house over the Sears catalog back then … It’s the wallpaper of the world you’re describing.”
Barrows’ “wallpaper” in The Truth According to Us is a lively household that functions as a family but is concealing plenty of secrets within its walls. Brother Felix hides behind his charm and status as a single father, but has a dark past, while Layla is trying to reinvent herself as a working woman without a past at all. Jottie remains trapped in the typical role of a woman in her day, despite longing for love and a chance to travel the world. “It was just tough to be a woman,” Barrows says. “Your life utterly absorbed in housework, that’s just the way it was.”
Meanwhile, Willa observes everyone’s shortcomings from behind the pages of her beloved books, a place Barrows is quite familiar with. In fact, she spent so much time at the local library as a child that they finally hired her to shelve books at age 12. “Parents talk to me a lot about how can we get our kids to read, and I remember my mother just kicking books out of my hand and telling me I had to stop reading,” she says. “I was going to go blind, my muscles were going to atrophy, swatting me out of the house so that I would do something other than read.”
It was the hot middle of Sunday afternoon, and I was reading Gone With the Wind under the house … Under the porch, to be specific. It was the only place that had enough light to read by, because there was a hole, partly made by possums and partly made by me. I despised possums, with their naked tails and their bleary eyes, but for Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler and poor old Ashley Wilkes, I was willing to live and let live.” – Willa, Chapter 31
Like Willa, Barrows read in a kind of daze and would consume almost anything that was put in front of her. She says Willa was the easiest character she’s ever written (even though she also writes books for children), but she also enjoyed working on the steamier scenes between Felix and Layla in this book, along with ultimately questioning the meaning of “history” and how it’s recorded.
“I come down with Layla,” Barrows says. “I don’t really, ultimately believe that there is very much unadulterated fact in this world.” As Layla becomes “wrapped up in this odd little town and its history” she begins to feel a responsibility to bring them all to life. Does she succeed in her completed History of Macedonia? You’ll have to read The Truth According To Us to find out.