By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
In a group of high school seniors on a long bus trip in April from their small town of Canterbury, Connecticut to Washington D.C., young Jeff Chaucer, with his awkwardness, creative mind, and inability to act in any situation, stands apart from the crowd. On this bus trip, his merry company includes an ex-girlfriend, the head cheerleader and campus sex expert, the youth camp Christian with a heart of gold, a tattletale who hides behind a clipboard, and his ex-best friend with whom he shares his overwhelming sexual tension. To bring some excitement to the multi-hour snoozefest, their teacher, Mr. Bailey, decides that they will all tell stories during the long trip, and the winner will get an automatic A for the semester in his Civics class. If anyone can win a storytelling contest, it should be the creative writer Jeff, but as the trip progresses and the contest gets serious, Jeff finds himself caught between his heart and his head and the chance at a perfect grade.
As many readers will soon realize, Kim Zarins’ “Sometimes We Tell The Truth” is a young adult retelling of medieval master poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Every aspect of the main story, from the protagonist to the pilgrimage structure, is lifted from the original text. Even the characters’ names reflect their original medieval profiles. Some connections are more clear – Cannon is the Canon’s Yeomon and Frye is the Friar. However, some require an actual understanding of Chaucer – the Wife of Bath is renamed Alison, who is not only the name of the wife but also the name of a character from the Miller’s tale, who just so happens to be represented by Rooster, Alison’s boyfriend.
And then we have our modern interpretation of young Jeff Chaucer, an underappreciated and doubt-ridden talented writer, virginal and possibly bisexual, definitely anxious, who has to occasionally fight for every breath thanks to health issues and his attraction to his friend/ex-friend Pard. He may not gel with an English major’s mental image of the original Chaucer, pointing at his own work on the pages of the Ellesmere manuscript, but this one reads as a real person, well-developed with his own story to tell.
“Canterbury” fanatics may find umbrage with some of the liberties Zarins takes with the original canon, but considering she has to do with Chaucer what Chaucer himself did not have the time to do – take her travelers to their pilgrimage point – it means she has to finish what Chaucer could not finish. She even incorporates some of the false endings of Chaucer’s tales, which were due his death before its completion. The Cook appears in the form of Cookie, who fails to finish his story due to falling into a weed-induced sleep, which only ends up triggering Chaucer’s asthma. Don’t worry; it all makes sense in context.
The book has a lot of the sex, drugs, and dumb puns that happen in young adult novels, and that makes it an entertaining read on its own, but what Zarins’ novel does best is connect strong storytelling with Chaucerian scholarship. Through young Jeff’s viewpoint, we see each student traveler as complex, flawed human beings whose stories reveal more about themselves than even the storyteller realizes. Just like the original Chaucer, you come for the bawdy puns and sex tales, and stay for the insights into human nature and relationships.
“First We Tell The Truth” is a treat for fans of both YA and medieval literature. It is surprisingly complex but never boring, and the modern day Jeff Chaucer is a worthwhile protagonist to follow in his namesake’s footsteps.