Berg is such a marvelous writer than she can keep you eagerly reading on for 150-plus pages even when the plot arc is a flat line.
"Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."
-- Abraham Lincoln
In 2003, a reader approached well-known novelist Elizabeth Berg with an idea for a book. Marianne Raming Burke wanted Berg to write about her mother, Pat Raming, who contracted polio while pregnant with Marianne and gave birth to her in an iron lung, a medical miracle of no small proportion. No less a miracle was the rest of Pat Raming's life. Unable to move anything but her head and attached to a portable respirator, this spunky woman went on to survive a nasty divorce, raise children, get a college degree, and become an activist for the disabled.
Berg admits that her initial reaction to Burke's proposition was not positive. She frankly states in her introduction to We Are All Welcome Here: "I don't like to take ideas from anyone -- it goes best when I work alone ... I'm a fiction writer. I would never try to tell someone else's true story." Nonetheless, the author went on to reconsider and take her reader's suggestion -- with the stipulation that she could fictionalize the facts to her heart's content.
Set in Tupelo, Mississippi, We Are All Welcome Here recounts the events in the lives of a quadriplegic single mother, Paige Dunn, her 14-year-old daughter Diana and their black housekeeper, Peacie, during the summer of 1964. That historical year marked the advent of political upheaval and social reform in the American South, as Martin Luther King's resounding words, "I have a dream ..." rang in the ears of ardent activists, black and white. Against this backdrop, the book's three main characters come to their own personal crossroads, where destiny and self-determination intersect to create profound changes in their lives.
Paige Dunn is not about to let handicaps cramp her style. "I [can] still taste and smell and hear and see ... learn and teach ... love and be loved," is how she assesses her situation. She paints with an art brush held in her teeth, reads books on physics and history, writes songs and stories, runs the household with an iron fist from her wheelchair, and gives her daughter cooking lessons while serving up bits of wisdom such as, "Life is the cure for life and death is the cure for death." Though encased in a portable iron lung like a giant metallic vest, she nonetheless dresses fashionably, sunbathes in a bikini, gets her hair done, smokes cigarettes, and takes a lover. In an era when the disabled discreetly stayed behind closed doors, Paige dines out and causes a small uproar in the restaurant as her boyfriend patiently feeds her dinner as she sits helpless in her wheelchair. When a cloddish hospital psychiatrist asks her how it feels to be paralyzed, she asks him, "How does it feel to be an incompetent asshole?"
While Paige wages a daily war to maintain an appearance of normalcy, her daughter begins the awkward, angst-riddled adolescent rites of passage. Diana, however, is constantly reminded that their household is anything but normal. Her life revolves around caring for her mother, a responsibility becoming ever more onerous and time-consuming. They subsist on food stamps and are the objects of the townspeople's supercilious charity and pity. Their Social Services caseworker is always at the door, threatening to put Diana in a foster home. The emotions she feels for her mother are as paradoxical and problematic as the woman herself. It is hard to love someone whose bedpan she has to empty and hard to hate a person so full of pluck and joie de vivre.
As Diana comes of age as a young woman, Peacie comes of age politically, stepping out of the Jim Crow mentality of the "old" South and into dicey arena of the early civil rights movement. When Peacie's boyfriend LaRue gets in trouble with the law for registering black voters, Paige and Diana find their already precarious existences thrown into turmoil and their future as a family put in jeopardy.
As a longtime fan of Berg's writing, I wish I could say her current book measures up to her previous successes. Its ultimate failure is all the more disappointing because there is so much praiseworthy about We Are All Welcome Here. Berg has created complex, memorable, and believable characters whose company the reader thoroughly relishes. The details of their everyday lives are so finely nuanced and engaging that you immediately feel like a close friend. The novel has the aura of a classic, reminiscent of The Member of the Wedding and To Kill a Mockingbird without being imitative.
Unfortunately, the literary magic spell is broken in the final few pages. The book's ending is abrupt, contrived and best suited for a cheesy made-for-TV movie. As if that's not bad enough, a curt docu-drama style epilogue has also been tacked on to reveal the characters' ultimate fates. After pitching the book across the room, you're left to wonder why an author of Berg's caliber would let down her audience and betray the integrity of her characters. Should she have heeded her original misgivings about taking ideas from others and not written the novel? Or did she just get tired of writing it and look for a quick exit?
After a careful re-reading, it becomes apparent that there isn't enough meat in the original idea to flesh out a novel without resorting to plot contrivances and over-the-top Hollywood-style endings. This is a fairly straightforward story, in literary terms, even with the addition of a peripheral civil rights theme. The options for broadening the scope or deepening insights or introducing fully realized subplots are even further limited by Berg's decision to have the adolescent daughter as narrator, not retrospectively with the wisdom of adulthood but living in the moment as it happens. The narrative is linear, non-analytical and emotional, as befits observations viewed through the narrow lens of a 14-year-old girl. While Diana's voice is an appealing, sympathetic, and highly readable one, it is not powerful or profound enough to keep the dramatic momentum going for 200 pages. What happens in Paige Dunn's household in the summer of 1964 is a compelling albeit small scale saga, just about the right size for a really fine short story where less is more and readers don't mind being left hanging on the last page.
The good news, however, is that Berg is such a marvelous writer than she can keep you eagerly reading on for 150-plus pages even when the plot arc is a flat line. We Are All Welcome Here is a unique visit with a remarkable family at an interesting moment in history and well worth reading despite its flaws. My only suggestion is on page 180 to politely thank your gracious host for a lovely time and then go home.