By Nancy Gilson, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Apr. 9–The germ for Elizabeth Berg’s newest novel was just that — the infectious disease of polio that struck a 22-year-old pregnant woman. In Los Angeles, Pat Raming gave birth to her daughter in an iron lung, something of a miracle at the time, but was never again able to breathe on her own or move any part of her body except her head.
She was divorced by her husband but was determined to raise her three children on her own. Years later that baby, Marianne Raming Burke, asked Berg to write her mother’s story.
The author, who had made a name for herself with novels such as Durable Goods and Joy School, rejected the idea of a nonfiction tale but agreed to invent a plot based on the circumstances.
Her work of fiction, We Are All Welcome Here, is as compelling as the truth.
The time is 1964 — the freedom summer — in Tupelo, Miss. Events are related by Diana Dunn, 13-yearold daughter of the determined Paige Dunn, paralyzed and breathing on a respirator but fully capable of keeping up with and disciplining her child. If Diana disobeys, Paige commands her to stick out her finger, which she bites and, if she’s drawn blood, then instructs the girl in how to apply a disinfectant and bandage.
Adding to Diana’s frustration is the formidable Peacie, the daytime housekeeper who’s been with the family since Diana was a baby and who repeatedly threatens to “wear you out” or “introduce your mouth to a fresh bar of soap.”
While Diana deals with the trials of puberty, or “pooberty” as Peacie calls it, the housekeeper and her boyfriend, LaRue, submit to the indignities forced on blacks at the time in the Deep South. Later in the tale, LaRue joins the freedom marchers, with serious consequences.
Much happens in this story: Diana and her self-absorbed friend, Suralee, stage a backyard play, enter sweepstakes contests and sample rum and cokes with some willing teenage boys; a social worker is alerted that Paige is attempting to cheat the system by having Diana rather than a paid caretaker work the night shift; Paige is taken out to dinner — disastrously — by an admirer; and LaRue is beaten and jailed for his civil-rights efforts.
But ultimately, the novel is a character study of Paige, a woman whose optimism and sense of humor put to shame anyone who has ever whined about anything.
“We’re all trapped in a body with limitations,” she says. “And we’re all guided by minds with limitations of their own. You want to know my philosophy? It’s this: Our job, regardless of our bodily circumstances, is to rise above what holds us down, and to help others do the same.”
The story is aided by its sharp dialogue and dark humor. It’s harmed a bit by plot contrivances; Elvis Presley, for instance, makes an appearance. But the resolution is so satisfying that one doesn’t mind the bit of fairy tale.
In addition, the vivid portrait of a mother-daughter relationship seems real. One imagines that Pat Raming and Marianne Raming Burke would approve.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
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