Enough time has passed since the 2008 collapse of the housing market for novelists to pen and publish works that reflect on it. Annie Weatherwax’s debut novel, “All We Had,” is one such work. Published last month, “All We Had” is a story about dirt-poor desperation, lifelong transience and instability of all kinds: food, housing, economic, emotional. At its center are 29-year-old single mom Rita and her precocious 13-year-old, Ruthie. They’ve never lived in a home of their own and, in the novel’s opening, they’ve decided to leave yet another of Rita’s gainfully employed, house-owning, creepy boyfriends — but not before stealing many of his sellable possessions.
On the road again with no money, a car on its last leg, and a flimsy plan to make their way toward Boston so that Ruthie will be close to Harvard — where her mother is certain she’ll eventually attend college — they end up in a sleepy, forgotten town called Fat River in upstate New York.
Weatherwax, best known for her long career as a visual artist, takes particular care to render generational poverty in palpable ways. When Rita urges Ruthie to steal bottles of Diet Coke and snack cakes, readers can practically hear the acids churning in their stomachs as Weatherwax describes how long it’s been since they’ve last eaten and how impatient they are to get every last crumb into their mouths. It’s the kind of careful narrative setup that makes their sudden good fortune in Fat River, where Rita scores a job as a waitress and the pair find themselves renting their a house within a year, such a relief to the reader.
Of course we know, from the moment Vick, an oily realtor, wedges his foot into Rita’s door, that the mother-daughter duo won’t be happy for long.
It’s never stated outright that Rita — or any of her neighbors, for that matter — signed a subprime mortgage agreement, but as the town’s single factory closes and its small business shutter, the quiet panic that seizes each character makes it obvious.
For me, “All We Had” came at an intriguing time; I read it months after The Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” which places housing inequity at the center of its argument. And I’m writing about the novel just days after news broke that Evans Bank of Buffalo, NY is at the center of a Fair Housing Act discrimination case. The bank is accused of redlining — or denying predominantly black neighborhoods in east Buffalo access to mortgage lending. The case is one of several against banks nationwide, one of the many pervasive aftershocks of the 2008 housing crisis. Redlining or “reverse-redlining,” in which banks disproportionately offer predatory loans to blacks and Latinos, are inching toward the forefront of national conversation.
None of the crisis-affected characters in Weatherwax’s “All We Had” are black or Latino, and reading the novel was a departure from the discourse within which I’ve found myself immersed. It’s a story about poor, working-class white families displaced from the only community where they could afford to live. Weatherwax describes Rita watching her neighbors sell off the big screen TVs and recliners they’d had delivered just months before, then disappear into the night, abandoning trailer homes. She writes about an old couple whose hardware store folds and how, at first they rallied, then slowly resigned themselves to desolation.
In these ways, “All We Had” also challenged my concept of the white families most affected by the mortgage crisis. While news coverage and political anecdotes have primarily focused on suburban families and the buckling of America’s middle class, far less time has been spent exploring women like Rita. “Wall Street vs. Main Street” discussions haven’t always accounted for women like her: dirt-poor and underemployed with minimal hope of affording a mortgage alone. (A notable exception is Monica Potts’s brilliant essay, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?”)
In the end, “recovery” takes far different shape for Rita and Ruthie than for a middle-class slowly making its way out of a financial slump. Rita falls back on her old habit of landing a man with his own mortgage — and this time she chooses Vick, the realtor who tricked her into signing hers. In his well-appointed home, she wears his deceased wife’s clothing and pretends to be far more refined than she is.
In the book’s only scene to imply race, Weatherwax delivers the novel’s most incisive social commentary. Rita and Ruthie encounter Vick’s likely-Latina (“olive-skinned” and “chattering in Spanish”) maid one afternoon. Ruthie asks if they should introduce themselves to her and Rita says, “No. We’re supposed to act like we don’t see her.” Ruthie then asks if they help her. Rita responds with a no. “We’re in a totally different class now.” “Aren’t we all just humans?” Ruthie challenges. Finally, Rita is silent.
Fiction allows for long and deeply honest meditation on the human condition. It is a space where readers are privy to the uncensored inner thoughts of characters suffering through common societal crises — characters and crises quite representative of the reader and his own. The most profound insights in “All We Had” have to do with the potential hidden costs of “economic recovery” for poor whites: an erosion of empathy, an insistence on maintaining the same hierarchical code that bars upward mobility for others, and a willingness to abandon one’s identity. This last bit is only an option for whites; poor blacks can’t abandon their racial identity and pretend their way into a “totally different class.” But this is beside Weatherwax’s point. Her point is that no one should have to pretend their way out of poverty. No one should have to marry an amoral, lascivious partner to avoid certain destitution. There’s much to recommend this lovely debut novel, but the best of its virtues are these truths.