Annie Barrows’ sprawling historical novel, “The Truth According to Us,” opens on a summer day in 1938 along a crowded parade route in the small town of Macedonia, W.Va.
The narrator in those early pages is Willa Romeyn, a precocious kind of Scout Finch-meets-Harriet the Spy character. Intent on figuring out the truth about the adults in her life, Willa spends much of the book sneaking around trying to solve mysteries past and present.
The book’s action begins with the arrival of Layla Beck, a senator’s daughter cast out by her father for unladylike behavior. He’s arranged for Layla to spend the summer in Macedonia, documenting the town’s history for the Federal Writers Project.
Not content to write the staid and sanitized version the town elders would prefer, Layla digs up all she can, her determination to present an honest picture of the community echoing Willa’s own naïve but tenacious investigations.
The heart of the story lies with Jottie Romeyn, in whose home Layla stays as a boarder. Jottie, the unmarried aunt and mother figure to Willa and her sister (whose own mother has left), is a sensitive woman nursing a decades-old broken heart. She’s also the sister of Felix, the girls’ father and a locally infamous cad.
Felix disappears for days, returning with wads of cash and affectionate if perfunctory greetings for his children. There’s a tension between Jottie and Felix, an old dynamic that intensifies when Felix starts to cast a longing eye toward their new houseguest.
The town of Macedonia, and the Romeyn family at its center, seethe with secrets long buried, misunderstood events and motivations, thwarted loves and unresolved rivalries.
Between Willa’s spying and Layla’s interviewing, the real truth begins spilling out left and right, and characters are forced to confront decisions from the past that continue to reverberate.
Barrows, co-author of the bestseller “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” has thoroughly researched the culture and politics of the time about which she’s writing.
The book’s pages are stocked with all of the expected characters and events of a novel set in the 1930s American South — bootleggers, a strike at the mill, well-dressed women gossiping as they try to stay cool in ever-present heat.
“The Truth According to Us” is a long book, perhaps a bit too long. Although it’s essentially a book about a small handful of individuals, the multiple townsfolk and extraneous family members we meet along the way can be a bit distracting.
Once the ancillary players start to fade into the background, however, and the light shines more directly and more brightly on the main characters, it’s easy to get caught up in their story.
Emily H. Freeman is a writer and a teacher of writing in Missoula, Mont.