Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and fifteen years of mid-20th century history, The Truth According to Us and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reflect the richness of storytelling that is only surpassed by the depth of characterization. The human spirit is reflected in the complexities of the characters that inspire readers to know their insides and outsides.
Author Annie Barrows is a storyteller through and through, whether writing children’s series or adult historical fiction. In her current novel, The Truth According to Us and the co-authored The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2009), she weaves her creative magic into the historical characters of each era. With a penchant for revealing the human condition, Barrows’ characters have been called sweet and sentimental―and they are. Beyond the quaintness reflective of the earlier eras, however, she delves into the heart and spirit of her characters whether pig farmers, phrenologists or writers. Her skill in climbing inside the skin of historical characters―male, female, young and old is a gift of writerly intuition that surpasses the typical research scenario often reminiscent of this genre.
Knowledge of the Great Depression in a small West Virginia town and the ensuing culture of the times in this Southern town, is as fluidly reflected in The Truth According to Us as it is in the post-WWII island of Guernsey off the coast of England in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society. Although we are beckoned into different time periods that span the Atlantic, the characters in both novels mingle and interact in candid and deeply human ways. They dynamically reflect the culture and norms of the times, evoking varying degrees of emotion as the reader voraciously turns each page. Further we meet characters reacting to the genuine unpredictability of real life situations.
Both novels expose the search for story experienced through the protagonist’s journey of authors in residence, struggling to capture moments of history. The reader is led back into past decades and the lives of the people surrounded by political and financial disaster and the devastating effects of the times. Characters struggle with the same real life demands of contemporary living involving relationships, family dynamics infused with jealousy, selfishness, and deeply rooted greed for power and possession, with the goal of love and survival.
Appealing to the literary tastes of the reader, we see history come alive and unfold through the research and inquiry of the protagonist authors who seek truth as it is revealed through the everyday lives of real people. The reader trips through the gamut of emotion including laughter, tears, and fears, as the experiences of a diverse group of people intersect and shed light on stories that are never over.
A technique that may be disconcerting to some involves the use of a series of formal letter correspondences to reveal backstory, set the tone, and build tension. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in its entirely is relayed through a successive series of letters between the characters. We learn much about the personalities of the characters and their intentions. Simultaneously, this technique jumbles the storyline and breaks the flow and continuity of the story. Readers are intrigued by Juliet and the captivating characters who form a book club on the Island of Guernsey to protect themselves from arrest by the Nazis and are interrupted in this pursuit by a mixed-up flow of correspondence.
The intermittent correspondence in The Truth According to Us is aligned with the story line and flows more smoothly throughout the context of the novel. This approach provides the reader not only with greater insight into the supporting characters, but also fits neatly into the historical backstory. Readers see the privileged Layla assigned to the Works Projects Administration (WPA) that ambitiously employed millions of unemployed Americans during the New Deal politics of the late 1930s. Her task to research townspeople for the sesquicentennial history of Macedonia sets the stage for character interaction and plot development. The letters help us to know more about the historical context and the suspenseful events that lead to the quest for the truth. “If history is destiny,” says Layla, “then we’re all trapped forever.” It begs the question of: “Is that the way it is?” Dear reader, you will be left to determine the answer.