Lynn Austin. All She Ever Wanted. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005. See here to buy the book.
Why this book didn’t win a Christy Award, I have no idea! It is my favorite Lynn Austin book that I have read so far. I like it better than the ones I read that won Christy Awards!
I’ll tell you what the book is about without giving away too many spoilers.
In 2004, Kathleen Seymour lives an affluent life with her husband Mike and her teenage daughter Joelle. Joelle is caught shoplifting, and this baffles Kathleen: Why would Joelle need to shoplift, when she gets a weekly allowance and could have bought what she stole? Kathleen and Joelle see a therapist, and Joelle is disillusioned because she does not really know Kathleen. Joelle wonders about Kathleen’s family (i.e., Kathleen’s parents and siblings), whom Joelle has never met. Meanwhile, Kathleen gets an invitation from her sister Annie to her father’s birthday party. Kathleen hasn’t communicated with her family in decades, and she is bitter against them. Kathleen and Joelle decide to take a trip to see Kathleen’s family.
On the road trip, Kathleen tells her story to Joelle. We flash back to the early 1960’s, when Kathleen was a little girl. Kathleen lived in dire poverty, in a dilapidated house. Her mother Eleanor dressed like a bag lady, was continually depressed, and spent a lot of time in the outhouse, which she called her sanctuary. Kathleen’s father Donald was away for long periods of time but was a cheerful, happy-go-lucky guy when he was at home. He also liked to steal. Her brothers Poke and JT were neighborhood terrors: JT was suspended from school when he was in kindergarten! Her little sister Annie cried a lot and wet the mattress (no bed, just a mattress), on which Kathleen also slept. Then there was Kathleen’s Uncle Leonard, who was Eleanor’s brother and lived with them. Uncle Leonard was a Communist, who liked to argue with Walter Cronkite when watching the news. Uncle Leonard has a girlfriend, Connie. Connie is sweet but never finished high school, and she works in a grocery store.
Kathleen carried the stigma of poverty, but also the stigma of her uncle being a Communist. Remember that this was the 1960’s, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis!
An affluent woman, Cynthia Hayworth, donates toys and hand-me-down clothes to Kathleen’s family. Kathleen becomes friends with Cynthia’s daughter, May Elizabeth, and Kathleen becomes a Christian at Cynthia’s church, after learning of Jesus’ compassion for the disadvantaged and marginalized. Due to her aptitude in mathematics, Kathleen is able to go to college and escape her family and the town of Riverside.
We flash forward to 2004! Joelle says that Kathleen’s family at least sounds interesting, which contrasts with Joelle’s own superficial, affluent upbringing. Kathleen and Joelle arrive in Riverside, and Kathleen calls Cynthia. The three of them meet, and Cynthia explains why she was helping Kathleen’s family when Kathleen was growing up. Cynthia was not just being an affluent Christian do-gooder. Actually, Cynthia had been friends with Kathleen’s mother Eleanor.
We flash back to the 1940’s, when Cynthia and Eleanor are applying to work in a defense plant. Eleanor is not yet the depressed bag-lady whom Kathleen remembers. Eleanor is confident, poised, well-spoken, and intelligent. How did Eleanor become the dour woman whom Kathleen remembers? Cynthia tells that story. In the meantime, we learn that there was a scandal involving Eleanor’s mother Fiona. Kathleen met Fiona once when she was a little girl, and Eleanor did not want anything to do with Fiona.
We flash forward to 2004. Kathleen and Joelle visit Kathleen’s old house in Riverside, and Uncle Leonard is living there with Connie. Uncle Leonard tells them the story of Fiona, who immigrated with her father to the United States from Ireland. This story takes place in the 1920’s. Later, Uncle Leonard explains why Eleanor left. We also learn about how Uncle Leonard became so passionate about social justice issues.
There were scenes that I especially enjoyed: Joelle contrasting Kathleen’s family with her own superficial, affluent upbringing; Eleanor and Cynthia in the 1940’s reading the room at a bar, where servicemen were seeking female companionship; Connie getting to be the mother she wanted to be (and she a good mother!); and Uncle Leonard showing up on the podium at a mock debate at Kathleen’s school when Kathleen was little and representing the Communist Party. I got a laugh out of that last one!
There were religious themes that I appreciated. Cynthia talks about how tragedy pushed Eleanor away from God, whereas it pushed Cynthia towards God. Fiona continually felt unworthy to approach God on account of her sins, yet she wanted her children to attend mass. Donald learned a profound prayer: “Let what we suffer teach us to be merciful—-let our sins teach us to forgive.” Donald also saw a divine purpose behind the ordeals that he experienced.
Page 390 had a thought-provoking statement: “[Kathleen] professed to be a Christian, yet she had cut herself off from [her family] so completely that she’d never even thought to pray for them. She knew that she would have to ask God to forgive her for that. It didn’t matter how many great things she’d done for God, how many charities she’d contributed to over the years. If she couldn’t even show compassion and love—-and forgiveness—-to her own family, it meant nothing.”
I wouldn’t say that it meant nothing, since I’m sure that the poor appreciated Kathleen’s donations to charity! Still, Kathleen was highlighting a legitimate point: that she felt an incongruity or lack of wholeness in her Christian life, since she had forsaken the people in her family.