Monday, August 17, 2015
Book Review: Just the Facts
By Jami Deise
I knew at a young age that I wanted to write fiction. I loved to read, watch and tell stories. Plus, writing was the only thing I was any good at. But it wasn’t until high school that I realized no one was going to pay me to sit in a corner and try to write the Great American Novel. I majored in journalism, which lead to another realization: interviewing people in order to write a story was not my strong suit, either. I went into public relations and spent the first ten years of my adult life writing press releases, speeches and editorials, which were closer to fiction that I had first thought.
This career trajectory is similar to Nora Plowright’s, heroine of Ellen Sherman’s debut novel, Just the Facts. It’s 1978 and Nora has just graduated college with an English degree. Wanting to write a novel but needing a real job, she takes an entry-level reporting position at a tiny paper in rural Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Her work consists of reading the police blotter every morning and writing quick paragraphs about the most unusual crimes. But when she’s sent to cover a community meeting about a proposed new highway, she unwittingly stumbles onto evidence of government corruption. Nora is torn between her desire to write fluffy feature articles or follow the trail to a bigger news story. And while her personal life heats up, the corruption trail may also lead to personal danger.
Just the Facts is written in a very straightforward style, and every chapter leads off with one of Nora’s funny police blotter stories. It starts a little slow, as the corruption story doesn’t really take off in a big way until the second half of the book. Nora also juggles a personal life with various boyfriends and roommates. Its 1978 setting means Nora has none of the tools that has changed journalism in the past twenty years – without the internet, there’s no crush for the hour’s next headline; there’s no email, cell phones or even fax machines. Strangely, there’s also no sexism, even though journalism was a notoriously sexist field in the 1970s (Nora does have to face some antisemitism, though.) It’s curious why Sherman chose to set her story in this decade. Although some of Nora’s coming-of-age decisions are timeless, journalism in 2015 is so different from 1978, the story feels way too specific to the time period to resonate with modern readers. Furthermore, the government corruption centers on the placement of a new highway, which isn’t the sexiest (but certainly very realistic) scandal to investigate.
As someone who grew up in Maryland, though, I enjoyed the setting, and the story made me wonder whether there really was some chicanery around those highways near Glen Burnie. And reading the details of Nora’s job convinced me that I made the right decision eschewing reporting for other kinds of writing. Reporters and authors may both be writers, but their motivations and interests are not the same.
Thanks to BookSparks for the book in exchange for an honest review.