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. Introduction
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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?