5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An adequate example of southern coming of age novels,
This review is from: We Are All Welcome Here: A Novel (Hardcover)
What attracted my attention to this novel is the fact it was inspired by the life story of one of Berg's fans. The author wasn't comfortable at first with the thought of writing someone else's autobiography, instead telling the woman to find another writer or just write the story herself. After she heard a little more of the story, however, she changed her mind.
What compelled Elizabeth Berg is surely what also compells the reader. We are All Welcome Here tells the story of a woman stricken with polio in 1960's Mississippi. During the last month of her pregnancy Paige Dunn begins to feel terribly ill. At first she believes she's going into premature labor, but by the next day she's completely paralyzed. A month later, confined to an iron lung, Paige gives birth to her baby girl, Diana. Also around that time her husband leaves, unable to handle the fact his beautiful young wife will not only never walk again, but will also never be able to breathe on her own. When he offers to take the child with him and care for her, Paige's response is an expletive. There is no way she would ever consider giving up her daughter.
Paige is left nearly destitute, receiving only a pittance from the state that's barely enough to keep body and soul together. Mother and daughter rely on handouts of used clothing, donated food, and other items from their neighbors in Tupelo, Mississippi. Peacie, a young black woman, comes to work for the Dunns, becoming a second mother to Diana. With the help of her strength and dedication Paige and her daughter are able to make a sort of life for themselves.
Thirteen year old Diana is at the heart of this story. When the tale opens she's hitting puberty with a vengeance, but unlike all her other friends she has no free time, and barely a dime to spend on the clothes and magazines she covets. Most of Diana's free time is spent helping to care for her mother. She doesn't sleep through the night out of fear her mother's ventilator tube will clog, or the power will go out, leaving her mother vulnerable. Understandably, she becomes resentful, and much of the story revolves around Diana and her coming of age.
We are All Welcome Here does deliver a compelling storyline. The best parts are those dealing with Paige and her desperate battle to keep going, and keep her family together. Female readers will most likely identify with Diana, whose struggle with adolesence is portrayed in a very sympathic manner. However, its worst flaw is that at times the plotline strays into improbability. Not knowing exactly where the line falls between fiction and nonfiction it's difficult to say whether the very improbable-sounding ending is real or imagined, but it does have a very unreal feel to it.
Stories about coming of age in the Deep South during the civil rights era are plentiful. Berg's depiction seems for the most part accurate, but at times the "voice" of her 13-year old main character doesn't quite ring true. There is no real shift between the voices of Diana and Paige, thus the younger woman comes off sounding far more mature than your average teenager, even if she has been forced to grow up and assume adult duties before her time.
A far more authentic-sounding voice can be found in the novels of Carson McCullers, who wrote coming of age stories set in her home state of Georgia during the 1930s/1940s. Her novels The Member of the Wedding and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter are masterpieces of southern literature. Those who enjoy the themes presented in Berg's novel may want to explore further in the books of Carson McCullers.