We Are All Welcome Here is a story about extraordinary women. The book is set in the summer of 1964 in Tupelo, Mississippi, and it is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Diana Dunn. Diana’s mother, Paige, is a quadriplegic from polio contracted while she was pregnant. She is only able to move her head. Peacie has been Paige’s caregiver since Diana was born. Diana has a lot of responsibility in assisting with her mother’s care.
The story follows this unusual family through an eventful summer. Peacie and her boyfriend LaRue, who are both black, struggle with the effects of nearby civil rights demonstrations. Meanwhile, Paige and Diana wrestle with the day to day challenges of Paige’s life, as well as how to prepare for an increasingly uncertain future.
Much of the story revolves around the details of Paige’s care and the technology available to quadriplegic people in the 1960’s. Paige refuses to allow her disabilities to defeat her, and by telling the story through her daughter’s eyes, the author allows us to understand this without preaching. Paige is hopeful, but she is not a sentimental character – her unusual practice of disciplining Diana by biting her finger, for example, is off-putting. The book mostly manages to avoid the “noble wise disabled person” trope and instead tells a story about real women.
Peacie and LaRue provide historical context as their involvement with civil rights’ issues grows, as well as an interesting wrinkle in the plot. Peacie is as fierce and brave as Paige in her own way. Paige, Peacie, and Diana each long for independence, but in different ways, and it makes for a nice meditation on the meaning of freedom.
I found the blend of topics interesting – polio, discrimination against disabled people, civil rights in Mississippi, and a female coming of age story. I also enjoyed Diana’s viewpoint, as her teenage emotions raced from rage to ecstasy to pathos, and the way the author tempered those pendulum swings as Diana matured. Diana’s thoughts as the narrator sometimes seemed a bit too wise or poetic, but it didn’t hinder the story.
I thought the plot was overly contrived. I’m willing to yield on that, though, when I view it as a fairy tale. It would have been cruel to defeat Paige completely, a character of such courage, in the name of literary realism or edginess. I’m glad the author decided that the sheer force of Paige’s will and love should be rewarded.
Overall, this book was a quick, enjoyable read, with strong female characters. It also made me think about topics I’d never considered before. I recommend it.