All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
Published: 2013, Viking Juvenile
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
I don’t know how to feel. I am weary of having to choose my facial expressions the way others can choose their words. For those who wish to read my face, every movement on its surface becomes a shout.
All the Truth That’s in Me hits every single right note for me as a lover of stories. Beautiful and experimental prose, a realistic, well-written protagonist with a host of emotional struggles, a subtle, sweet romance, situations that delve into major life truths. Honestly, I could just stop there. But this is me, so of course I’m going to go into some more detail.
Judith Finch has returned from the dead, more or less. She and her best friend disappeared from their village four years ago. Her friend’s body returned shortly thereafter, devoid of life, but no one knew what happened to Judith until she returned to two years later with a missing tongue.
Even if Judith’s tongue had been whole, she would still have had little reason to use it back in her Puritan town of Roswell Station. No one knows what happened to Judith, and no one wants to. They’d all just prefer to ignore her existence, including her own mother. And Judith has been fine with that arrangement, as she has problems even internally articulating her thoughts on what’s happened to her.
This all changes when Roswell Station is attacked by homelanders, intent on destroying the lives of Judith’s kin and neighbors who now live there. Judith has the power to help turn the tide of the upcoming battle, but to do so would force her to confront her past, the past that no one (not even herself) wants to acknowledge.
A lot of early reviewers pointed out the fact that this story is told in the second-person narrative tense. It’s not a commonly used tense for a reason: it’s awkward and difficult to get right. It potentially can help the reader feel more involved in the story, but at the cost of also losing readers who cannot get over the use of “you” and their (seemingly) constant inclusion. For these reasons and more, I was a bit disconcerted to hear about the narrative style.
If you’re like me in that regard: don’t worry. For the most part, I felt as though I was reading a first-person narrative. Judith is the main character and the story is told almost entirely in her head (she cannot speak, after all). Her thoughts are directed towards childhood friend and love interest, Lucas Whiting. Despite the many complications that her feelings for Lucas elicit, Judith cannot help be drawn to him, and that draw appears through the direction that her thoughts take. While this sometimes uses a second-person narration, the first-person narrative style is actually predominant here.
Despite it weighing in at under 300 pages, All the Truth That’s in Me is a heavy book that deals with many difficult topics. Most obviously, this is a book about kidnapping, murder, maiming, and social ostracization. It’s also about violence, fear, and all those times in life when inexplicably terrible things happen to good people (for Judith is not the only one to suffer over the course of the novel). Particularly with regard to Judith’s maiming, Berry presents an important focus on disability, both how to survive one and how to deal with those suffering from one. This is a topic that could have been handled very poorly, but fortunately that was not a problem here. Judith does not easily acknowledge or accept her disability; she learns to work with it and grow from it, but very slowly. It’s part of her, but she comes to realize that doesn’t mean it should define her. And neither should others allow tragedies to set unwanted trajectories for their own lives.
Although there are plenty of heavy topics present within this work, this is also a love story. A story about romantic love, yes, but also a story about familial love, friendships, and love for oneself. When she was taken away, Judith lost her family, her friends, her place in society, and Lucas. Judith must rebuild all of her relationships from the ground-up, certainly not an easy task for anyone, let alone one unable to speak and dissuaded from attempting to communicate in other ways. Painful as it is to see Judith waffling over whether (and how) to move forward with these relationships, the most moving one is definitely between Judith and herself. As sweet as Judith’s relationship is with Lucas, this is firmly Judith’s story. To move forward again, Judith must learn how to come to terms with herself and equally love who she was, who she is, and who she can become. And no one else can do that for her.
This is also a work of historical fiction, and it is perhaps in this context that the novel is at its weakest. Although it is never stated explicitly, I imagined that Judith’s Roswell Station is some fictional New England town. The winters are brutal and the villagers place great emphasis on religion, modesty, and purity. It’s a very restricting society for those who do not - or cannot - adhere to its societal standards. I assumed the “homelanders,” the original inhabitants of the area, are akin to displaced tribes. But it’s all incredibly vague. Judith - and, consequently, Berry - gives readers very little to work with from a historical perspective.
But then that’s not really the point of the novel at all. Although the blame for Judith’s mistreatment can be placed at the feet of her villagers and their historical context, it doesn’t have to be. Her mistreatment is much, much bigger than one culture during one era of human existence. And because the narrative technique is to give readers tidbits of information at a time, it wouldn’t make sense for it to focus heavily on the historical context. That doesn’t matter to Judith, and so neither should it matter to the readers.
All the Truth That’s in Me is an atypical book in essentially every way possible. Berry took many authorial risks in the creation of this book, and they all worked out beautifully. Although relatively short in length, it packs a punch and will leave readers thinking about Judith’s story long after the final page is turned.
Rating: 5 stars