“It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a young, unmarried woman is in want of a dolphin.”
In a modern day retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, twenty-two high school seniors sharing a Civics class, their young, hopeful teacher, Mr. Bailey, and a disgruntled bus driver take a class trip to Washington D.C. How does Kim Zarins’ debut novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth, adapt The Canterbury Tales to a modern day high school field trip? Zarins has each student tell a story and whoever has the best story by the end of the trip will receive an automatic A in the class. Our narrator, Jeff Chaucer, a shy writer, quietly watches the tales unfold while giving readers a glimpse into his own story where he and his ex-best friend haven’t spoken in months and the truth of what happened behind the senior prank gone wrong comes unveiled. In the nine hour bus ride, Jeff is forced to realize that while he may have gone to school with these kids for the last four years, he never really knew them until this day. Zarins does a fantastic job of giving attention to each storyteller throughout this novel, keeping them in character, and keeping each character uniquely their own.
While Zarins is obviously using The Canterbury Tales as a foundation for this story to follow, she pulls from other authors when the students tell their own story, using fanfiction to give each student a voice. Pard uses Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to tell his own story using DEATH’s character and three original characters to tell the story of his broken friendships and how he was betrayed by his best friend, Jeff. Many of the students put one another in the stories to add familiarity and fun to the storytelling or just to put a classmate in their place. Mari, a writer like Jeff, creates a continuation of Charlotte’s Web where one jock classmate, Rooster, plays a cocky, sex-crazed rooster who almost gets his neck bitten off by a fox because of vanity. Narnia, Harry Potter, and King Arthur’s court all appear as background worlds for some of the stories, giving credit to the stories that influenced these students’ childhoods just as The Canterbury Tales pulls on classic medieval literature.
The number of characters does make it difficult to keep track of who’s who at first. That’s why Zarins includes a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the novel with detailed descriptions of each student. This novel is hilarious, distinctive, and a treasure to read. Each character pops out of the page, but most importantly, Sometimes We Tell the Truth has saved me from ever having to read The Canterbury Tales!
“I’m going to write this whole thing. I’m going to write everyone’s stories and make a novel of it. A NOVEl. Not just the stories, but everything. The interruptions, the bickering, the coffee breaks. It’s going to be about loneliness and finding each others’ truths on the slant through the stories they tell. It’s going to be about lies and big reveals and how we shuffle and deal the cards and bet our souls away. It’s going to be about EVERYTHING.”