Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






It’s rare for a popular and prolific author like Elizabeth Berg to write a novel based on a reader’s suggestion, but that’s what happened with her latest book, We Are All Welcome Here. Protagonist Paige Dunn contracts polio while pregnant, and delivers baby Diana in an iron lung in Mississippi in the early 1960s. Paige can move only her head and she requires constant care. She raises Diana in the most normal way possible, and that’s the grace in this story. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 67-73, with Diana as the narrator, Suralee is a friend, and Peacie is Paige’s caregiver:


There were often nights when I couldn’t sleep well. It had nothing to do with getting up with my mother. Rather it had to do with a kind of anxiety I talked myself into, a kind of downward spiraling familiar to anyone even mildly acquainted with insomnia. It came from too many what  ifs, too many uneasy projections into the future that could make you feel bitten about the edges. But tonight, many hours after our play, I couldn’t sleep for another rea­son, and that was because of a wild kind of happiness, be­cause of the excitement of believing that Suralee and I were at last on our way toward certain fame. I couldn’t wait to tell Photoplay that I knew the exact night it had all started.

We’d had what was, for us, a huge audience. Fifteen minutes before the show was to begin, Suralee and I had stood at my bedroom window, watching people come. My mother and Peacie and LaRue, of course. Brenda collected money in a cigar box, and more than once I heard her say loudly, “Tips are accepted!”

Noreen Halloway came, wearing false eyelashes and white lipstick and, according to Suralee, perfumed to high heaven with Intimate. Brooks Robbins came with Holt Evers, who worked with him at the hardware store, making good on his promise to bring someone to “beef up the crowd.” Most people sat on the ground, on sheets we’d spread over the lawn (with Peacie’s reluctant permission). But Opal and Hamilton Beasley sat in the front, in two of the four chairs provided. Another chair was taken by Dell Hansen’s date, who turned out to be not a glamorous young woman but rather Rose Trippett. “She must be two hundred years old!” Suralee said. Old Mrs. Trippett was the grandmother of Ben Samson, who’d been almost famous as a football player but had been killed in a freak accident at practice one day—his neck had been broken. The fourth chair stayed empty, as though ac­commodating a ghost. Suralee said it was good luck in theater, to have one chair empty.

Before we went upstairs, Suralee and I had seen Dell arrive in a brand-new black Pontiac—a GTO, he said. It was a fine car, thrilling, and it looked so strange, parked outside our house. I hoped those neighbors who had declined coming to our show would see it. Not that they would ever admit to me that they had.

Dell looked every bit as good as before, if not better. He was taken aback when he met my mother—his face had colored, in fact, when he first saw her—but he quickly recovered. He leaned down to say nice to meet you. He smiled at her. He touched her hand.

Just before Suralee and I were ready to go down and start the show, Riley Coombs came limping into the backyard. He was dressed up, for Riley. This meant that he had combed his hair and tucked his shirt in and tied his shoes. I couldn’t be sure from where I stood, but he even looked clean-shaven. He sat far in the back, putting some distance between himself and the others. He was like an octopus, I thought, scary-looking but really very shy.

We’d laid out four flashlights to be footlights. My mother had agreed to let us put all the house lights on for our performance, and as darkness began falling, they provided a wonderful glow, which is ex­actly what we’d intended.

When we were ready to begin, I held up a blanket and announced, “The Night Can Be Measured, a new play written and performed by Suralee Halloway and Diana Dunn. Tonight’s performance is the world premiere.”

Behind me, while I spoke these words, Suralee climbed quietly into our garbage-can iron lung, which was lying on its side and decorated with gauges and portals we’d drawn in with black crayon. Suralee’s compact served as the overhead mirror. We had cleaned the can with bleach and lined it with newspaper, but it still had a bit of an odor. Suralee had said she’d be so into character she wouldn’t even notice. She was wearing all black, something she was otherwise not allowed to do, and her hair was in a high ponytail, tied with white ribbons. The hairstyle was modeled after one we’d seen in a newspaper photo of my mother, just minutes after I was born. In that photo, she lay in the iron lung with her ribbons and her red lipstick, and a nurse held me off to the side and above her. After the photo was taken, my mother had asked the nurse to show her my fingers and my toes, and my mother had counted them aloud. Then she’d asked the nurse to hold my hand to her mouth and she’d kissed me and the nurse had dripped tears onto my head. “Baptized,” my mother had said.

Our play centered on a woman in an iron lung whose doctor falls in love with her one moonlit night. Once Suralee was inside the can, I dropped the blanket, went behind the lilac bushes that grew in our backyard, then emerged again, transformed into Dr. Larson. I wore a man’s white shirt someone had recently donated to us, cut at the knees to be lab-coat-length. I carried a clipboard. In my front pocket, for lack of better props, were a wrench, a screwdriver, and a pair of scissors. “Well, well,” I said to Suralee. “And how are we doing this evening?” I crossed my arms over my chest and stood with my legs wide apart, as I’d been instructed.

“Dr. Larson!” Suralee said, in a voice not quite her own. “What ever are you doing here at this hour?”

I hesitated—grandly, I thought. Then I said, “Well, I . . . I don’t quite know. But I do know that the loveliest faces are to be seen by moonlight.” I sat on the ground beside her and reached out to touch her face. “For that is the time when one sees half with the eye and half with the fanny. Fancy!”

Suralee grimaced but quickly regained composure. The play went on from there, a conversation between the doctor and the patient that showed how much they had in common, despite their glaring differ­ences. They talked about their favorite season, their favorite songs. Something we’d never quite gotten right in rehearsal worked flaw­lessly in the play—we said something at the same time, then at the same time said, “Jinx, you owe me a Coke.” We gaily laughed and then stopped suddenly, for we realized what we both were feeling. Suralee said, “This can’t be happening. It’s impossible. It’s like trying to mea­sure the night.”

“The night can be measured,” I said.

Suralee laughed. “No, it can’t!”

I told her how—too mechanically, I realized; I was afraid of forget­ting the lines.

“Why, that’s. . . that’s beautiful,” Suralee said, and she was so con­vincing she made up for my wooden presentation. I looked into her face, lowered my voice as much as I could, and said, “Very beautiful.” I made sure not to look away too fast, so that the audience would un­derstand that it was she I found beautiful. Then, in a fine, tremulous tone, I admitted my love for her, and asked if it was possible that she could care for me, too. Could she, possibly? Yes, she breathed—we’d written that into the script, Yes, she breathes. In that case, I said, would she come to live with me? Again she breathed Yes, oh yes. Then our fa­vorite part, the dramatic pulling back just as Suralee and I were about to kiss because another patient was in trouble and needed me. “Will you wait for me?” I asked, and Suralee said, “I know that the moon brings all things magical, but just where do you think I might go?” This was a tribute to my mother’s sense of humor, and I snuck a look to see if she was smiling, which she was. I ran offstage, concern for the next patient evident in my face, my cardboard stethoscope slapping against my chest. I disappeared behind the bushes again, and LaRue stepped forward and turned to face the audience, a piece of paper Suralee had given him in his hand. He cleared his throat, smoothed down his tie. “Love,” he began, then stopped, removed his hat, and started again. “Love does not have legs,” he slowly read, his finger moving along. “It does not have arms. But it move mountains.” He put the paper down at his side, obviously relieved, and Peacie leapt up and began wildly applauding him. The others followed, though I hoped some of their applause was for us, too.

We had cake afterward, Peacie’s delicious buttermilk chocolate, and everyone was saying how much they had liked the play, how imag­inative we were, what good actresses. When I talked to Dell, he told me that Rose Trippett was his best friend Ben’s grandmother. “Ben Samson? That football player?” I asked, and Dell said yes, that in fact he himself had been a football player, too, on the same team as Ben, but had quit after the accident. He’d always promised Ben that he’d come with him to Mississippi to visit Rose sometime—Ben had told Dell how nuts he was about his grandmother—but Dell never had. But now he was staying with Rose for a while, making sure she was all right, and deciding what he wanted to do next with his own life. Noreen stood right next to Dell until he left—early, as it happened, be­cause Rose grew tired. And then Noreen glued herself to Brooks, who was glued to my mother—and she left when he did.

I lay in bed, thinking about Brooks. It might not have been such a good idea to do a play about loving a woman in an iron lung; it might have given him ideas. Not that he didn’t seem to already have them. Tonight he had told my mother that he would like to take her out to dinner sometime. My mother had laughed. Out to dinner! she’d said. Brooks had said sure, how about it. My mother had said it would be pretty hard with all her equipment—she could frog-breathe long enough to get somewhere close by, but then she’d need to get plugged in again. Brooks had said his friend Holt would come, he would help carry the equipment, and they’d make sure the restaurant had an out­let near their table.

“But you’d have to feed me and everyone would stare,” my mother had said, and Brooks had said he would pick a corner table and she would sit with her back to the people. I’d been sure she’d refuse him, but she didn’t. “Well, maybe,” she’d said, and she was smiling. Dell had overheard this conversation—it took place just as he was getting ready to leave—and had come over to look more closely at my mother’s equipment. “Seems like you could hook that one box up to a battery and then build something onto the back of your wheelchair that could carry what you’d need,” he’d said. “Just a plywood extension would do it.”

I loved that he wasn’t afraid of my mother, that he seemed to see past everything and acknowledge her as a person. It was a rare thing. Brooks had gotten all excited and said yes, that was right, he’d thought about that himself, he’d get to work on a design for it at the store to­morrow. “I’ll help you,” Dell had said, and Brooks smiled uneasily and said okay.

Suralee and I had been watching this, and I’d said, “Ugh! Look at him! See what I mean?” Suralee had said she thought it might be good for my mother to have a boyfriend. “Yeah, if it were someone like Dell,” I’d said, and Suralee had said she didn’t really think Dell would be interested in my mother. She’d stared straight ahead when she said this, and I’d seen that she wanted Dell for her own mother. That’ll be the day, I’d thought. Noreen had no more chance than my mother did. At least my mother was pretty. At least she was smart and funny. And Dell had liked her, I could tell. You could tell these things. She’d in­vited him to come back to visit, and he’d said he would.

I got out of bed to stand at the window and look out at where our play had taken place. I was eager to do another one and make more money, but Suralee said we had to do a different project first, one that could net us far more than our plays did. There was a sweepstakes she’d seen in one of her mother’s magazines. All you had to do was col­lect Sweetnuf cookie and cracker labels and send them in. Send in as many entries as you like; you could win five thousand dollars and a trip to the World’s Fair—that was first prize. Twenty-five hundred was second prize, five hundred dollars was third.

There were five days left to enter. We were always entering sweep­stakes, and we had never won anything. But I agreed to help her find as many labels as we could. We’d go door-to-door, begging, as usual. Then we’d get started on the next play. It would be about Noreen—she herself had requested that.

I climbed back into bed and lifted up my pajama top so that the fan would blow on my skin. It was so hot and humid. Other kids would be out on the lawns, sleeping on mattresses they’d dragged outside. But I was not like other kids, as my mother was not like other mothers. For­ever and ever. This I would tell Photoplay, too. To their great admira­tion, I was sure.


Most readers will finish We Are All Welcome Here quickly, and will want to pass it to someone else to read, so both can talk about it.


Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



Buy We Are All Welcome Here

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/We Are All Welcome Here.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com