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May 20, 2024

Review in Haiku: We Are All Welcome Here

By Katrina Stonoff

Paralyzed woman
births baby from iron lung,
raises her alone.

I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Berg from way back, so I expected to love We Are All Welcome Here.

And, for the most part, I did.

I first heard about on it when Elizabeth Berg spoke on the Authors on Tour, Live podcast. She was funny and charming and fascinating ... and told a startling story.

She had been contacted by a reader who said, "I have the perfect book for you to write."

Well, let me assure you, every writer hears those words on a regular basis, and they are never welcome. First, ideas are worthless. The joke among writers is that if someone offers you either 100 ideas for guaranteed, bestselling novels or $1, take the dollar. Second (this relates to the first point), writing a novel is incredibly difficult, and unless the author is practically obsessed by the idea, he/she probably won't get it finished. Third, when people offer ideas like that, they usually want the end result to be exactly the book they "would have written." Ain't gonna happen. Ever. Unless they write the book themselves. Finally, the comment is often followed by, "And we can split the royalties!" Yeah, after *I* do all the work! No, thanks.

But this particular fan had a unique story to tell. A victim of polio, her mother was in an iron lung when she was born. Though everyone urged the mother to give the baby up for adoption, she refused and raised her alone, with the help of a caregiver who became part of the family.

Still, even the best idea is worthless, and Berg would have told her no except the woman included a photograph of her mother. And something about her face: her expression, her personal power, her joy ... something captured Berg. And soon she found herself obsessing as a good writer does, not about the memoir her fan wanted her to write but about a fictional story based on the woman Berg glimpsed in the photograph.

A fabulous idea in the hands of one of America's premier writers of women's literature.

And indeed, the book is fascinating. One of the most startling scenes, one of the few based on actual events, shows the daughter, Diana, in trouble. She needs to punished, but how do you punish a child if you cannot move anything below your neck?

"Give me your finger," the mother tells her 13-year-old daughter, and Diana sticks her finger in her mother's mouth to be bitten. Afterward, Paige tells her to go rinse it with antiseptic cleanser so it doesn't infect.

Her best friend asks, "Why do you just let her bite you like that? Why do you put your finger there? What's she going to do if you just walk away?"

Diana's response? "I don't know." And yet, she doesn't risk it.

The picture of the life Diana, Paige and Peacie (the caregiver) live is drawn with such a skillful hand that you live the story, lost for a moment in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when racial tension was the talk of the day.

And yet ... when the book begins, Diana is 13, so "Mother gives birth in iron lung and raises baby alone" is no longer the story; it's just the set-up.

When I was in journalism school, we heard the words "change in status quo" bandied about a lot. Nothing was news unless it showed a "change in status quo."

The same is true of fiction. Regardless how fascinating the status quo may be to a reader (especially a status quo that is completely alien to him, as this is), it's not a story unless there's a change.

But the first 80 or so pages deal with ordinary life: Diana takes care of her mother at night, dodges Peacie's firm disciplinary hand during the day, and writes short plays with her best friend which they put on in the backyard. Fascinating ... but not story.

In fact, it feels a little voyeuristic, just as Trans-Sister Radio did for very similar reasons. When I read fiction, I want to follow a character through conflict, not just hear the juicy details of their life, no matter how unlike mine.

I also had an "Oh, puhleeze!" moment at the ending. I won't spoil it for you, but I have to say, I would have preferred a more believable wrap-up.

Overall though, this is a fascinating book, filled with wonderful people you will come to love, told in Elizabeth Berg's inimitable style.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-07-14
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