A stirring debut novel about a mother and daughter who find an unlikely home amid the quirky residents of a small town—“The smart style, crisp narrative, sharp dialogue, and vivid descriptions send a powerful message: there is hope hidden in despair” (Publishers Weekly).
For thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, life has never been stable. Though Rita works more than one job, the pair teeters on the edge of poverty.
In their battered Ford Escort, they head east in search of a better life. When money runs out and their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded in a small town called Fat River where Rita finally lands a steady job waitressing at Tiny’s, the local diner. With enough money to pay their bills, they rent a house and make their own family: tender-hearted Mel, the owner of the diner; the aging owners of the local hardware store whose livelihoods are dwindling; and Peter Pam, the transgender waitress who becomes Ruthie’s closest friend.
Into this unlikely utopia comes a smooth-talking mortgage broker who entices Rita with a subprime loan. Almost as soon as Rita buys a house their fortunes change. Faced once again with the prospect of homelessness, Rita reverts to survival mode, and the price she pays to keep them out of poverty changes their lives forever.
Annie Weatherwax has written a stunning, heartrending first novel. “A vivid journey into the dark side of the American Dream...that alternates between black comedy and heart-breaking realism...All We Had is an enjoyable read that takes an important look at economic insecurity” (Providence Journal).
This reading group guide for All We Had includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Teetering on the brink of homelessness at the height of the housing boom, thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, load up their possessions (and a few stolen goods) in their battered Ford Escort and set out cross-country in search of a better life. When car trouble brings their journey to an end in the small town of Fat River, they unexpectedly find a home amid the town’s quirky residents. At its core, All We Had is a love story between a mother and daughter whose bond is irrevocably altered by their search for the elusive American Dream.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Ruthie and Rita’s relationship. How is it traditional and how is it unusual? Rita’s shortcomings as a parent are often evident, but in what ways is she a good mother? What kind of mothering do you think she had?
2. What is “fierce and smart” about Rita? Why does Rita hide these traits from men in particular? How do economic circumstances inform this behavior?
3. Rita and Ruthie’s car is central to their lives. For a long time it’s the only thing they own, and when they have no other choice, it doubles as their home. In what other ways is the car significant?
4. Ruthie’s heroes are Hillary Clinton, Anne Frank, and the Virgin Mary. Why do you suppose she’s drawn to these female figures? What does each one of them represent to her?
5. How does the economic stability Rita and Ruthie find in Fat River change them? How does it impact their view of themselves, their relationship with each other, and their view of the people around them?
6. How do the people they meet in Fat River, including Mel, Patti, Arlene, Peter Pam, and the Hansons, influence Rita and Ruthie?
7. What role does Mel play in Ruthie’s life? In what way does he change Ruthie’s view of men?
8. Peter Pam is described as the novel’s voice of warmth and reason. Why do you think this is, and in what ways is this unexpected? Why do you think Ruthie develops such a close friendship with her?
9. When Peter Pam is attacked outside the diner, why does Ruthie take matters into her own hands rather than seek help? What does this reveal about Ruthie and the ways in which her upbringing has shaped her?
10. In this same scene, Rita appears more than willing to come to her daughter’s defense. How and why does this change at the end of the novel?
11. Discuss Miss Frankfurt’s small yet important role in the story. Why does she go out of her way to help Ruthie and Rita, as well as convince Peter to resume being Peter Pam?
12. The book takes place in a small American town set in the shadow of Walmart. Discuss the role Walmart plays in the book. What is the significance of the scene in Walmart?
13. All We Had is set during the recent subprime mortgage crisis, which affected families across the country and made headline news. How does the economic decline of Fat River change its residents? How does it impact their relationships?
14. How and why does Ruthie and Rita’s relationship change once Vick enters the picture?
15. Vick has a pool, but the pool is empty, and Piney Hills, where he lives, has neither pine trees nor hills. In what other ways is the reality of Rita and Ruthie’s lives distorted here?
16. What motivates Rita to send Ruthie away? Was it selfish or selfless of her to let Ruthie go?
17. In what ways does Ruthie’s voice impact this novel? How do her insights, humor, and observations color and shape this story?
18. Homeownership was once thought to be a pathway out of poverty. Do you think it still is? What is the novel’s overall message about economic inequality? Has reading All We Had changed your view of poverty?
Annie Weatherwax was the 2009 winner of the Robert Olen Butler Prize for Fiction and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, for years she earned a living sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Pixar, and others. She is currently a full time painter and writer. All We Had is her first novel. Learn more at AnnieWeatherwax.com.
“A fresh voice that sculpts with words in a way that's as beautiful as it is brutal. I love this story and the hands that crafted it.”
– Patricia Cornwell
"Gritty and convincing.... A remarkably authentic story of folks on the skids... Weatherwax's smart style, crisp narrative, sharp dialogue, and vivid descriptions send a powerful message: there is hope hidden in despair."
– Publishers Weekly
"A vivid journey into the dark side of the American Dream... alternates between black comedy and heart-breaking realism... an enjoyable read that takes an important look at economic insecurity."