We Are All Good People Here

A Novel

LIST PRICE $36.00

About The Book

From the author of A Place at the Table and A Soft Place to Land, an “intense, complex, and wholly immersive” (Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author) multigenerational novel that explores the complex relationship between two very different women and the secrets they bequeath to their daughters.

Eve Whalen, privileged child of an old-money Atlanta family, meets Daniella Gold in the fall of 1962, on their first day at Belmont College. Paired as roommates, the two become fast friends. Daniella, raised in Georgetown by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, has always felt caught between two worlds. But at Belmont, her bond with Eve allows her to finally experience a sense of belonging. That is, until the girls’ expanding awareness of the South’s systematic injustice forces them to question everything they thought they knew about the world and their places in it.

Eve veers toward radicalism—a choice pragmatic Daniella cannot fathom. After a tragedy, Eve returns to Daniella for help in beginning anew, hoping to shed her past. But the past isn’t so easily buried, as Daniella and Eve discover when their daughters are endangered by secrets meant to stay hidden.

Spanning more than thirty years of American history, from the twilight of Kennedy’s Camelot to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency, We Are All Good People Here is “a captivating…meaningful, resonant story” (Emily Giffin, author of All We Ever Wanted) about two flawed but well-meaning women clinging to a lifelong friendship that is tested by the rushing waters of history and their own good intentions.

Excerpt

We Are All Good People Here Chapter 1 BELMONT
Roanoke, Virginia, 1962

Daniella’s father steered the Dodge Pioneer up the serpentine drive of Belmont College, home to more than five hundred girls renowned for their Beauty and Brains, or at least that was what the boosterish tour guide who had shown Daniella around the previous spring had claimed. Just as the main quad came into view—a pleasing vista of faded brick buildings with white columns, the Blue Ridge Mountains serving as backdrop—they passed a gang of cheering students holding signs painted with the school colors of green and white: “We Love Our New Girls!” and “Honk If You’re a Monty!” and “Welcome to Heaven!”

Daniella’s father beeped his horn at the cheering girls, causing them to yell all the louder.

“How fun!” remarked Daniella’s mother, a woman who should have graduated from a school like this but had dropped out of Sweet Briar (only an hour’s drive away) after her second year, when she became pregnant with Daniella’s older brother, Benjamin, by the visiting history professor, the handsome, young, and Jewish Dr. Gold. The Golds parked in the visitors’ lot and, passing other pretty, fresh-faced girls carrying suitcases and pillows—many of whom were followed by their fathers, lugging trunks—they made their way to Monty House, the redbrick Colonial that was to be Daniella’s new home. There was a portico out front and a large Palladian window above the open front door. Waiting just inside was a stout woman who wore her silver hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She introduced herself as Mrs. Shuler, Monty House’s dorm mother.

A faded Oriental rug, so thin in spots it was almost translucent, partially covered the dark wood floor of the entryway. Against the wall ticked a grandfather clock, and beside it hung an oil portrait of Georgina March, whose father founded the college. The whole place smelled of oranges, as if someone had polished all of the wooden surfaces with citrus oil. Mrs. Shuler noted that supper would be served at 6:00 p.m. in the dining hall and told Daniella that her room was on the second floor, the fourth on the right past the front staircase. Daniella’s roommate had already arrived. All Daniella knew about her was that her name was Evelyn Elliot Whalen, she went by “Eve,” and she was from Atlanta. Moments later, when Daniella walked through the open door of her new room, she was practically tackled by Eve, who flew through the air to envelop her in a hug. She smelled of roses—Joy perfume Daniella would soon learn and which she, too, would start wearing.

“You are Daniella, right?” Eve asked, no longer embracing her, but with both hands resting lightly on Daniella’s forearms, which were tan from tennis.

“Indeed, I am,” said Daniella, trying to sound breezy but feeling a little overwhelmed.

“Oh, I’m so excited to meet you! I don’t mean to be such a spaz, but I’ve been looking forward to this moment all summer! I thought I was going to room with Tate Pennington, but then she ended up going to Agnes Scott at the last minute to be near her boyfriend at Tech. And I was secretly so excited because that meant I would get to meet a whole new person!”

Daniella’s mother smiled brightly at her daughter.

“Well,” said Daniella. “I hope I don’t disappoint.”

Eve waved away that bit of blasphemy as if clearing the room of an unpleasant odor. She was taller than Daniella, at least five foot eight, and while she was far from overweight, her hips were curvy and her body was, if not large, present. She was not a girl who would ever fade into the background. She wore a kelly-green sleeveless shirtdress and a pair of Keds printed with watermelon halves. Her shoulder-length blond hair was teased and curled, so that it formed a bump on top, secured with a barrette, and flipped under at the ends. Daniella teased her brown hair, too, only first she straightened it using the comb attachment that fit on the end of the hose of her hair dryer. Left to its own devices it frizzed.

Eve had already set up her bed with a white eyelet spread and pink-and-green decorative pillows. On the far wall of the room, sitting on an antique coffee table, was a silver tea set on a silver tray. Eve noticed Daniella looking at it. “Grandmommy gave it to me. I guess there’s a tradition of girls hosting tea for each other?”

Eve conveyed this information with enough of a raised brow to let Daniella know that she recognized it was all a little silly. Daniella’s father stood off to the side, his lips pressed together in amusement. But Daniella’s mother was clearly delighted.

“Is that Strasbourg?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Eve.

“Daniella! Strasbourg is the pattern Mother Scott left you! Can you believe it? You two are a match made in heaven.”

“Oh, we’re going to have a ball!” gushed Eve.

• • •

After hugging her parents good-bye and watching them drive away, Daniella returned to Monty House to settle in. Eve was just finishing unpacking her trunk full of beautiful clothes. Daniella admired Eve’s Burberry trench coat (the same one Audrey Hepburn made famous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and the rainbow of cashmere twin sets Eve hung in her closet, along with a little fox fur stole Eve’s grandmother had given her to wear to formals on chilly evenings. Daniella had her own collection of cashmere twin sets, but she owned three, not ten, and it had never even occurred to her that someone might bring a fur to college.

That night after their dinner plates were cleared and scoops of vanilla ice cream were served, Daniella and Eve lingered in the dining hall talking, long after the other girls had left. At one point Eve walked to the kitchen where the cafeteria ladies were cleaning up, taking her and Daniella’s empty bowls of ice cream with her. Daniella assumed she was bussing their table, but instead Eve returned carrying a half-pint carton of milk, a can of Hershey’s syrup, and one of their old bowls, which now contained a heaping second serving of ice cream. Eve then proceeded to make a milk shake for the two of them, dumping ice cream, milk, and chocolate syrup into a water glass, then swirling the concoction furiously with a spoon. After she drained her half of the shake, Eve patted her own stomach, saying that she’d better watch out or she would turn into a fat pig.

“Don’t say that about yourself,” scolded Daniella. “You’re beautiful.” Eve looked at her, surprised.

“Aw,” she said, and looped her arm over Daniella’s shoulder, giving her a little sideways hug.

Later, after hanging the framed Audubon prints of hummingbirds that Eve had brought and organizing their desks, the two girls stayed up till 3:00 a.m. talking, long after their other hall mates, who had joined them for a spell, had wandered back to their rooms. As the night progressed, Daniella surprised herself by telling Eve the awful secret that she hadn’t shared with anyone: that she was almost certain her father was carrying on an affair with Dr. Spool, the new lady professor in the history department at George Mason, where her father taught. That past spring Daniella had surprised him by showing up at his office one afternoon after tennis practice. She had wanted to talk to him honestly, and without her mother around to interject, about whether she should go to Barnard or Belmont the following year. His door was closed, but the department secretary had assured her that he was in, so she knocked until he answered. When he finally opened the door, Dr. Spool had hurried out of his office, her blouse haphazardly tucked into her pencil skirt, her cheeks flushed.

Eve shared a shocking revelation of her own: Her mother’s best friend—Eve’s “Aunt Pooh”—had died in a plane crash that summer, a chartered plane filled with Atlantans returning from a European art tour. Upon takeoff in Paris, the plane had caught fire.

Eve blinked and her eyes pooled with tears. “You cannot imagine. So many of my parents’ friends died. It was just—it was biblical. Like a flood swept over Buckhead, wiping away so many good people.”

They continued to share the details of their private lives, Daniella telling Eve of the chronic nightmare she had been plagued with ever since she was nine years old, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair for being communist spies, the Rosenberg children losing both of their parents in the course of a single day. In her nightmare it was her own parents who were dragged away by the police, all the while Daniella screaming that they were innocent, that she needed them, she needed her mom and her dad. “My father is Jewish,” Daniella explained. “And while I was raised Unitarian, the fact that the Rosenbergs were Jews haunted me, as if that were the real reason they were killed.”

When the subject turned to sex (both girls confirmed they were virgins), Daniella confessed that over the summer her high school boyfriend had unhooked her bra and cupped her breasts in his hands. Eve said that one summer when she was twelve she hid in her brother Charlie’s closet and watched him change into his swim trunks so that she could see what a penis looked like. He was sixteen, and she was fairly certain he knew that she was in there, watching, though neither of them ever said anything to the other about it.

Both girls had older brothers, but neither was particularly close to her sibling. Eve reflected on how differently she and her brother were raised, that when Charlie got in serious trouble her father would hit him with a belt, but that he never hit her. She said she always felt guilty when Charlie was punished, but she noticed, too, that as they grew older her father listened to Charlie more and more, treating him like a man, whereas she felt she would always be cast as the family’s “baby,” adored but never particularly respected.

Daniella said that she didn’t know if her father really respected her mother, that when he spoke about politics or other matters of importance at the dinner table it was her and her brother he addressed, and not his wife, even though she had, in fact, been a stalwart volunteer for JFK’s presidential campaign. But it seemed as if Daniella’s father just couldn’t stop seeing his wife as the pretty college girl he had once seduced.

“At least your dad talks to you,” said Eve. “My dad would never even consider that I might have an opinion about that stuff.” She raised her legs and crossed them beneath her, intending to sit Indian-style on her bed, but just as she did she passed gas, loudly. Daniella wasn’t sure what to do—it had been drilled into her to ignore such things—but Eve started laughing so hard she snorted. And so Daniella started laughing, too, and then Eve passed gas again and it made Daniella laugh even harder, and Eve pointed out that when Daniella laughed her nostrils vibrated.

• • •

In the basement of each residence house lived a maid. The maids were there to straighten the common areas, to assist with afternoon tea, to clean the girls’ bedrooms, to do their laundry, even to do their ironing. A sophomore informed them, “If you need a dress or a blouse pressed, just leave it hanging on your door and it will be returned the next morning, wrinkle-free, presto change-o!”

Miss Eugenia lived in the basement of Monty House. She was an older woman, though Daniella could not say how old. Like all of the maids at Belmont, she wore a knee-length black uniform with a white apron tied around her waist, thick white hose covering her brown legs. Any time Eve saw Miss Eugenia she would grin and say, “Hey!” as if she were encountering a favorite cousin at a family reunion. Miss Eugenia always smiled politely and answered with a formal greeting, and she always called Eve ma’am. Eve told Daniella that she couldn’t see a maid without thinking of Ada, who had practically raised her back in Atlanta, spending five days a week at the Whalen house, letting Eve watch soap operas with her while she ironed the family’s clothes, fixing chicken and dumplings for dinner—Eve and Charlie’s favorite—on nights when their parents were out.

Eve and Daniella started bringing cookies down to the basement any time Eve’s mother sent some of Ada’s from home, in an attempt to “Only Connect,” the E. M. Forster edict that the dreamy youth group leader from Daniella’s church back home had adopted as his motto, and that Eve had latched on to as well under Daniella’s influence. In early October, Eve’s father sent a half bushel of Winesap apples from Ellijay, Georgia, where he had spent the week hunting. The apples were a perfect balance of sweet and tart, and so fresh the juice ran down their chins whenever they took a bite. Eve put most of the apples out in the common room for the other girls to enjoy, but she and Daniella decided to bring half a dozen down to Miss Eugenia.

It was midafternoon, the calmest stretch of the day. They found Miss Eugenia sitting in her lounge chair watching Central Hospital on the little black-and-white television that she kept on her dresser. “My baby,” she called it. Though her door was open, Eve knocked anyway.

Eugenia jumped and quickly stood. “Lord, I’m sorry,” she said. “Did I not hear the bell? What you girls need?”

Every room at Monty House had an interior doorbell. If a girl needed something she just pressed the doorbell and Miss Eugenia would arrive.

“Not a thing, Miss Eugenia,” said Eve. “We just wanted to bring you some apples.”

“No, thank you, honey,” said Eugenia, sitting back down and returning her attention to the TV screen.

“But they’re so good! My daddy sent them fresh from Ellijay.”

“I ain’t got nothing but fake teeth in here,” said Eugenia, tapping at her top tooth. “Cain’t bite an apple.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Daniella.

“Wait, is that Dr. Lance Patterson?” asked Eve, pointing to the handsome man on the TV screen.

“It sure is, honey, and he supposed to be dead.”

“I know!” said Eve, making her way into the room and sitting down on the end of the narrow bed. “I watched all last summer.”

“Well, what happened is his cousin buried him alive in that cave, but what his cousin didn’t know was there was an old hobo already living in there, and that hobo fixed it up so they could get water from a little drip that came in through the rock, and he had all kinds of canned goods for them to eat. Dr. Patterson lived in that cave for six months, honey, six months! Till one day there was an avalanche and he just tumbled right out.”

“Oh my Lord,” said Eve, covering her mouth with her hand, the opal and diamond ring her mother had given her in honor of her sixteenth birthday twinkling in the television’s soft glow.

• • •

After that, Eve would go to Miss Eugenia’s room to watch Central Hospital any afternoon she wasn’t in class. Miss Eugenia didn’t exactly invite her, but she didn’t seem to mind the company, either, even offering Eve some of her Kraft caramels, which she sucked on like hard candies since she wasn’t supposed to chew them with her false teeth. Sometimes Daniella would go down, too, to try to talk with Miss Eugenia during the commercials. Daniella wanted to know where she was from, and did she have a husband, and did the two of them have children, and how much did she get paid for cleaning up after the Belmont girls?

Miss Eugenia spoke easily about her four children and three grandchildren, all of whom lived nearby in Roanoke, except for her oldest grandson, who had enrolled in the Army, but she would never give Daniella a straight answer about her salary. “I get by,” she would say.

Later Eve told Daniella it was bad manners to pry, to which Daniella responded that southern manners helped keep segregation in place. “My dad says it’s all part of an elaborate code to keep the racial lines firmly drawn.”

“That’s not true,” said Eve. “Manners are about making other people feel at ease.”

“Yeah, I’m sure Miss Eugenia feels really at ease with what she gets paid,” Daniella retorted. But then she wanted to take back her words, because Eve looked as if she might start to cry.

• • •

“Lord, I miss Ada,” Eve said the first week after Thanksgiving break. She told Daniella that besides a brief stay at her family’s farm in South Georgia, where she caught up with her brother and her cousins and even went hunting with the men, she had spent most of her time in Atlanta following Ada around like a dog, just going from room to room with her, getting in the way. She even offered to help clean, but Ada told her to quit being foolish.

“You’ve influenced me, you know,” Eve said. “I asked Ada how much she gets paid.”

“What did she say?” asked Daniella.

“That it was none of my business.”

“You could ask your dad.”

“I did. He said she probably doesn’t get paid enough, but that Mother can’t pay her more because then the other maids would start demanding more from their employers and Mother would be in trouble with all of her friends. So they try to make up for it in other ways. Like Daddy puts money in a savings account for her, and Mother often gives her old clothes that are still in really good condition, stuff she would normally take to the Nearly New.”

“Kind masters,” said Daniella.

Eve frowned. “They are kind. Don’t be mean.”

“Sorry,” Daniella said, feeling a little stung. They always talked honestly about their families, about what they did and did not like about them. Eve had never accused her of being mean before.

“Ada tickled my arm just like she used to when I was little. It was heaven. Did you ever play that game? Where you close your eyes and the person runs her finger up your arm and you’re supposed to say when she hits the vein at the crook?”

Daniella shook her head no.

“Lord, what did you Unitarians do at spend-the-nights?” said Eve. “Here, sit down. Let me show you.”

Daniella sat on her bed and Eve sat beside her. “Now close your eyes,” said Eve. Daniella obeyed, and Eve ran her fingers up the underside of Daniella’s forearm, starting at her wrist and working her way toward the elbow. “Tell me when I get there,” Eve said. Daniella felt a light, tickling sensation in the middle of her arm and told Eve to stop. She looked down and was surprised to see that Eve’s fingers were a good two inches below where she thought they would be.

“You moved them!” said Daniella.

“I didn’t. It’s some weird nerve-ending thing. If you practice, you’ll get better. Ada let me practice again and again, and it felt so good. And then she scratched my head like she used to do when I was a little girl. I asked her if she wanted me to rub her feet and she said I was too old to be doing that, that it wouldn’t be right.”

Eve looked so sad after talking about Ada that Daniella suggested she write her a letter to let her know how much Ada meant to her. Eve pulled out her box of monogrammed Crane stationery and threw herself into the task, while Daniella went down the hall to see if there was a game of bridge in session. She had never really played before coming to Belmont, but it turned out she was a natural.

When Daniella returned to their room, she could tell from Eve’s wet lashes and ruddy cheeks that she had been crying.

“What’s wrong?” Daniella asked, sitting on the edge of the bed beside her friend. Eve reached for a tissue and blew her nose, then told Daniella, in a shaking voice, that she realized she still didn’t have Ada’s address. She had meant to ask Ada for it in Atlanta but had forgotten. So she decided to address the letter to Ada in care of her mother. She started addressing the letter: “Miss Ada . . . ,” and then she realized she couldn’t remember Ada’s last name. She knew she had learned it before, but she could not think of what it was. And suddenly the lopsidedness of it all struck her in a way that it never had before.

“She used to rub my tummy while I sat on the toilet and cried, because I was constipated, and I don’t even know her last name.”

• • •

After that, Eve joined Daniella in her efforts to try to find out more about the lives of the Belmont maids. How many worked at the school? Did they all know one another? How many hours a week did they work? Were they given lunch breaks? What happened if someone got sick? What happened if someone got pregnant? What happened if someone needed to take time off to care for a sick family member—would her job be waiting for her when she returned?

They tried to talk with the maids who worked in the other dorms, but Eugenia was the only one who told them anything at all, and that was only during Central Hospital’s commercial breaks. Eve had asked Eugenia if she would show them pictures of her family. The only pictures hanging on the wall of Miss Eugenia’s room were of Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the president. Miss Eugenia opened the top drawer of her dresser and brought out a portrait taken at her church. There stood a younger Miss Eugenia in a large hat, flanked by her three daughters, all with somber faces. Below the women was an older man, presumably Miss Eugenia’s husband, who was in a wheelchair. Daniella knew Miss Eugenia had a son, but he was not in the picture.

“What happened?” asked Eve, pointing to the wheelchair. Miss Eugenia explained that Franklin had been shot in a hunting accident years ago. The wound had gotten infected, and he ended up having to have his leg amputated, just a week shy of his twenty-third birthday. “He got a wood leg, but he says it’s real uncomfortable, so mostly he sticks with the chair.”

“Has he had trouble finding work because of his leg?” asked Daniella.

“He tried to go back to work at the factory, but he couldn’t ’cause of the stairs. He had a little shoeshine business downtown, but then that diner came in—Lester’s—and they run him off, even though he had paid good money to rent that corner. He thought about finding somewhere else to set up his polish, but his arthritis started acting up real bad. So we both real grateful I got this job, honey; we surely are.”

“But when do you see him?” asked Eve.

“Every Sunday. And my daughter Gwinn, she look after him during the week.”

“But couldn’t you go home each night and come back every morning?” asked Eve. “That way you’d get to see him more.”

“What if one of y’all got sick in the middle of the night?”

“We would go to the infirmary,” said Eve.

“What if one of y’all rips a hem just before one of your formals over at Hampden-Sydney?”

“We’d go to the dance with a ripped hem,” said Eve. “Big deal.”

“All I know is my job is to take care of you-all, and that means round-the-clock.”

The show had come back on, so Eugenia quit talking. By this point Daniella had become interested in the story, too, in what Dr. Lance Patterson was going to do to extract revenge on the cousin who tried to bury him alive. She noticed that Eve wasn’t really paying attention.

• • •

At dinner Eve brought up the plight of the maids with some of the other girls from Monty House, as it was a Thursday, when everyone was required to sit at a table with their dorm mates. The Monty House girls made up four tables in total, but Mrs. Shuler sat at Eve and Daniella’s, leading the girls in grace before the casual meal of chicken salad, fruit cocktail, corn muffins, and chocolate chip cookies.

“Seriously, y’all. If we banded together and said that we don’t need them to stay overnight, they might be able to go home and see their families,” said Eve. She was animated as she spoke, wearing her dad’s old plaid flannel shirt—which she rarely took off—with a blue-and-white-striped skirt zipped over her jeans to comply with the school’s dress code for dinner.

“I agree,” said Daniella. She was buttering a corn muffin, served savory, not sweet like her mother made at home. When Daniella first commented on the lack of sugar in the Belmont corn muffins, Eve told her that no self-respecting southerner would eat a corn muffin that was sweet. For a moment Daniella had felt wounded, the seed of insecurity her mother had planted long ago sprouting. (Countless times during her life her mother had said some version of, “I worry that it will always be a struggle for you to feel as if you belong, because you are half-Jewish.”) But then she looked at Eve and realized she was being affectionate and laughed, allowing herself to be delighted once again by her friend.

“But Eve,” said Lane Carmichael, “what if I’m getting ready for a formal and the zipper on my dress breaks? If the maids have all gone home, who’s going to fix it?”

“Yes, and I love how Miss Eugenia puts out milk and graham crackers before we go to bed,” said Eleanor Morgan, who had removed every piece of celery from her scoop of chicken salad.

“You can’t pour yourself a glass of milk and get some graham crackers out of the box?” asked Eve.

Eleanor rolled her eyes. She was a prim girl, someone who always sat ramrod straight. “I simply don’t think it’s wise to do anything controversial before rush.”

“Are you serious?” said Eve. “First of all, rush isn’t until next semester, so who cares, and second, I would think the best of Belmont would want to do all they can to help the women who help us so much.”

Daniella knew that when Eve said “the best of Belmont” she was alluding to Fleur, the local sorority that Eve’s mother and grandmother had been members of during their Belmont days.

“It’s December, Eve. Next semester is just around the corner,” said Eleanor. “And we’re not all double legacies. Some of us can’t afford to be as blithe as you.”

“What does that have to do with trying to be decent and kind to Miss Eugenia?” implored Eve.

“Girls,” said Mrs. Shuler. “Let’s move on.”

Eve stopped talking, but Daniella knew that she wasn’t going to move on, indignation burning her cheeks.

After dinner Daniella asked Eve if she wanted to go to the library with her to study, but Eve demurred, saying she had things to do in their room. When Daniella returned a few hours later, her face flushed from the brisk mountain air, Eve held up a piece of her heavy stationery, upon which she had written a letter to Dr. Dupree, the headmaster of Belmont. Eve read the letter to Daniella. In it she stated that the policy of twenty-four-hour maid service was outdated and unnecessary and that the maids themselves had to find people to take care of their own families in their absence. Mrs. Eugenia Williams, for example, had a crippled husband who was left home alone while she served 10:00 p.m. snacks of milk and graham crackers to the girls of Monty House. Eve suggested an alternative, that the maids work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then anyone who wanted to earn overtime could stay for an evening shift.

When Eve finished reading, she looked at Daniella expectantly. Daniella didn’t say anything.

“What?”

“It’s great, Eve. It really is. I’m just not sure if you should send it.”

“Why on earth not? You just said it was great.”

“Well, if you do send it, don’t use Eugenia’s name. Or check with her first—make sure she’s okay with it.”

“I’m a concerned student! I have every right to send it! And none of those other girls give a damn. That idiot Eleanor Morgan just wants to make sure someone is there to pour her milk and serve her graham crackers and probably burp her before she goes to bed at night. We need to be the voice for Eugenia and all the other cleaning ladies. Aren’t you the one always telling me, ‘Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions’?”

Thanks to the Unitarian Church, Daniella had memorized lines and lines of Emerson, which Eve was now parroting back to her.

“I just think you need to make sure your ducks are all in a row before you start shooting.”

“?‘You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.’?”

Emerson again. Eve was a quick study.

• • •

Eve posted her letter in the campus mail the following day. For the next week, if Daniella checked their mailbox before her, Eve would race in from class and go through the letters on her desk, looking for one on Belmont stationery. “Nothing?” she’d ask, and Daniella would say, “Nothing.”

“Well, damn.”

Eve was still going down to Miss Eugenia’s room to watch Central Hospital most afternoons, but Daniella spent every afternoon in the library, writing papers and studying for exams. Eve told Daniella that she hadn’t mentioned the letter to Miss Eugenia, saying she didn’t want to disappoint her if nothing came of it, which she was beginning to think would be the case.

On the Thursday before Christmas break, Daniella, who had taken her last exam the day before, turned in her final paper of the semester. Her parents weren’t picking her up until Saturday, so she had a day and a half to play. The sky was blue and the December air was crisp but not too cold—the perfect weather for a hike along Lazy Creek, which ran through the campus and then continued to wind all the way to the base of Mount Illahee.

Daniella’s appreciation for the surroundings of Belmont had deepened. She loved the crisscrossing of bare tree limbs, the mountains that held the college within their embrace, the stillness of a winter day. Earlier that week, Eve’s mother had sent peanut butter fudge—made by Ada—and Daniella imagined munching on a piece of it as she and Eve hiked, following the circuitous path of the half-frozen creek.

She just hoped Eve was done with her papers and exams as well. She couldn’t quite remember her friend’s schedule but was pretty sure she would be finished by Thursday, too. Daniella went back to their room, but Eve wasn’t there. Glancing at her watch, she realized it was Central Hospital hour. She headed down the basement stairs, hurrying as she got near the bottom, because she could hear keening, like a cat in heat.

It was Eve, slumped on the floor, clutching her knees to her chest, her hair in her face, crying and hiccupping, her back against the wall. A cold certainty settled over Daniella as she walked toward her friend. She knew that Miss Eugenia was not in her room; she knew that Miss Eugenia would no longer be returning to Belmont. When she peeked inside, she saw that the bed had been stripped and Miss Eugenia’s pictures had been removed: the one of Jesus with a halo, the one of Dr. Martin Luther King, the one of President Kennedy. There was no TV set on the dresser, no chipped cup on the bedside table, no worn slippers peeking out from underneath the bed. There was no sign of Miss Eugenia at all.

Daniella walked toward Eve and slid her spine down the wall so she could sit beside her. “What happened?”

“I got here right as she was finishing packing. She barely looked at me, Daniella. Said she’d been fired for being an ‘agitator.’ Said she was given the afternoon to get her stuff and find a ride home.”

“Oh, Eve.”

Eve, her cheeks stained with tears, her breath hot and foul, looked at Daniella. “I did this. I made this happen. It’s my fault.”

Daniella kneaded Eve’s shoulders, which were bunched, tense. She imagined absorbing some of Eve’s pain into her own hands. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “I promise. This is all much bigger than you are. This stuff has been happening for a very long time. Just ask my father, the historian.”

“Well, I never knew about it,” said Eve, and in that moment she sounded like a haughty child.

Daniella tried not to think of Miss Eugenia carrying an old suitcase down the basement hall, on her way to the parking lot to wait for one of her daughters to come pick her up, to drive her toward a bleaker, starker future. For a moment, Daniella felt a cold, calm anger toward Eve, her silly friend who was so naïve she thought she could splash and kick her way into an ocean of oppression and instantly change the tide. But then she looked at Eve, saw her weeping, saw that she was deep in grief. Daniella, so full of instant indignation, deflated. She understood that she was as responsible as Eve. Before the two girls met, Eve was blissful in her ignorance. And Miss Eugenia had a job.

Reading Group Guide

This readers group guide for We Are All Good People Here includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Rebecca White. 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

We Are All Good People Here is a gripping, multigenerational story inspired by true events. It follows two best friends through their political awakenings in the turbulent 1960s and the repercussions of their actions after their daughters encounter the secrets they thought they had buried long ago.

Eve Whalen, privileged child of an old-money Atlanta family, meets Daniella Gold in the fall of 1962 on their first day at Belmont College. Paired as roommates, the two become fast friends. Daniella, raised in Georgetown by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, has always felt caught between two worlds. But at Belmont, her bond with Eve allows her to finally experience a sense of belonging. That is, until the girls’ expanding awareness of the South’s caste system forces them to question everything they thought they knew about the world and their places in it.

Eve veers toward radicalism—a choice pragmatic Daniella cannot fathom. After a tragedy, Eve turns to Daniella for help in beginning anew. But the past isn’t so easily buried, as Daniella and Eve discover when their daughters are caught up in secrets meant to stay hidden.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. A lot of attention is paid to Eve and Daniella’s appearances. Daniella’s first impression of Eve is that “she was not a girl who would ever fade into the background” (p. 5). How does the theme of appearance and visibility recur throughout the novel?

2. Eve has brought a silver tea set to Belmont, a gift from her grandmother. It’s the same silver pattern as the one Daniella was left by her maternal grandmother. How do you think this silver sets the tone for the novel? (p. 5)

3. Eve’s activist awakening occurs because of the treatment of Miss Eugenia, the maid at Monty House, who reminds Eve of her beloved Ada, the family’s maid in Atlanta. But Eve’s attempt to advocate for Miss Eugenia get her fired, and Eve’s good if misguided intentions have dire consequences. How are the reverberations of this incident felt through the years?

4. Early in the novel, Eve is portrayed as a somewhat naïve debutante, and Daniella comes to realize that “she was responsible as Eve. Before the two girls met, Eve was blissful in her ignorance” (p. 19). How does Daniella continue to feel responsible for Eve and Eve’s actions, even when she is not directly involved?

5. When Daniella is not invited to pledge Fleur because of her Jewish father, Eve stands by her, and both transfer to Barnard. But “It wasn’t so much Jewish girls that Eve noticed when she arrived at Barnard as northern girls, northern girls who operated from a different code of conduct than she had been taught. That first month of school she was always getting her feelings hurt” (p. 47). What does Eve sacrifice for Daniella? Do you think she comes to regret it?

6. Why do you think Eve is drawn to Warren? If she and Daniella had both been accepted to the Mississippi Summer Project, do you think that the course of the novel would have been different?

7. In one of the most arresting chapters of the book, Eve, provoked by members of Smash, skins a cat (p. 113). What do you think this scene represents? How does it fit into the narrative of the novel?

8. When Eve and Daniella reconnect in Atlanta, after Eve finds out she’s pregnant and after the bomb at the Linwood house, Daniella serves as the voice of reason and Eve’s legal counsel. She comforts Eve, telling her, “‘All you have to do is show up. Just show up, and life will push you forward’” (p. 154). How do the events of the novel confirm or contradict this sentiment?

9. The novel’s title comes from a line uttered by Bob Powers, who says, “‘Eve is our client, not a hostile witness. We’re all good people here, all trying to muddle through this the best we can’” (p. 163). What do you think the title means in the larger context of the book? Do you think the title is sincere or ironic?

10. In the second half of the novel, Eve and Daniella’s relationship is filtered through the eyes of their daughters. How does this change your perspective?

11. Sarah’s summary of Eve’s and Daniella’s lives crystallizes some of the challenges each woman has faced. Sarah notes that “Mom says that she and Eve drifted apart after she met Dad. She says she was so head-over-heels in love with him that she let a lot of things drop from her life, and she knows she hurt Eve’s feeling when she did” (p. 181). How does Daniella’s relationship with Pete affect her friendship with Eve? And how does his death cause another shift?

12. In the second half of the novel, Daniella is concerned about money, to the point that Sarah notes: “After Dad’s accident, she started talking about money all of the time” (p. 175). How does Daniella’s obsession with money affect her relationship with her daughter? How does it affect her relationship with Eve, who has much more of it but doesn’t control the family purse strings?

13. How does Sarah and Anna’s friendship mirror or differ from the friendship of Daniella and Eve? How do you think their mothers’ relationship influences theirs?

14. Toward the end of the novel, Daniella bemoans that Eve’s “‘life has offered her so many opportunities, so many second chances—second chances no person of color would ever get, by the way. Yet she continues to bury herself again and again in the dogma of whoever has captured her attention at the moment’” (p. 281). Do you think this is a fair assessment? Why might she be predisposed to this behavior?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Discuss your own life at eighteen. Did you have a close friend like Eve or Daniella? Did you go to college? Join a sorority or an organization like Fleur?

2. Research the lives of American female radicals, including Diana Oughton, Kathy Boudin, Cathy Wilkerson, Bernardine Dohrn, and Sara Jane Olson. Though these women were once members of violent organizations such as the Weather Underground, many of them have gone on to have productive—and still somewhat public—lives. Discuss the effects of their youth, the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and the different paths their lives took after the dissolution of the extremist groups to which they once belonged.

3. Read American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen by Mark Rudd, Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers, or Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left by Susan Braudy for a nonfiction perspective on fringe, radical organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.

A Conversation with Susan Rebecca White

You’ve published three previous novels, but this is your first in five years. What do you think makes this novel different?

I wrote my other books during a more optimistic time, when I happily assumed that the arc of the moral universe was inevitably bending toward justice and that equality for all was on the horizon. I lived in enough of a bubble that I could believe such things. Honestly, I knew enough history to know better, but still. (It was the “inevitable” part of the bend that I got wrong—justice takes human agency.) And then events occurred in my personal life, and in the larger world, that no longer allowed me to think in such a way. Which is not to say that I am without hope. I possess a wellspring of hope. But I have come to view history as cyclical rather than triumphant, and I have come to believe that we repeat, again and again, that which we did not get right the first time. And both on a personal and a global level, when we bury our past without any sort of reckoning, without any sort of reparation, it will haunt us, dog us, make us miserable. And it goes without saying that the turbulent and troubling political times we are currently living through helped me better understand how Daniella and Eve might have been feeling in the 1960s and 1970s.

What sparked your interest in this time period and in these characters?

I’ve always been interested in the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I wondered what my own role would have been had I lived during that time. I imagine I would have been politically involved, as political involvement has defined much of my adult life—canvassing for candidates, helping to register voters, that sort of thing. But unlike some of my characters, I’ve stayed well on the right side of law and order. Indeed, I’ve turned into such a rule follower that when the flight attendant says to review the safety information card from the back of the seat in front of me, by God, I take it out and start looking it over! So naturally I’m fascinated by those who break the rules in the course of their activism. I deeply admire some of the rule breakers—Jesuit priest and antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan, for example—and I’m deeply disturbed by those who believed so fanatically in their cause that they valued it and the ideology that supported it above actual human lives. In my exploration of the mind-set of such dangerous ideologues, I got to ask the question: How is it that some people get so wrapped up in “pure” ideology that they lose both their minds and their humanity?

Many of your novels are set in Atlanta, where you’re from. What do you think makes your hometown such a ripe setting?

Atlanta is a city in flux, sometimes to its own detriment, in that it seems to embrace an ethic that new development is always a positive and that any old building can benefit from being knocked down. But the transient nature of Atlanta, the fact that so many people from other parts of the world live here, that marginalized people from all over the South move here to find acceptance, that the city is a nexus of black political and intellectual power, anchored by the historically black colleges and universities Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta, that the Southern Center for Human Rights and the King Center and the Carter Center are all located here, as well as the Bitter Southerner and the High Museum of Art, not to mention the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the BeltLine and, and, and . . . I could go on and on, but my point is that such a wealth of arts and culture and activism makes Atlanta dynamic, generative, interesting—an antidote to the stereotype of the South too often perpetuated. All of that said, we are also a largely segregated city with terrible traffic and poor infrastructure and gaping income inequality and sometimes shallow and regressive ideologies. It’s a mixed bag, my town. And it’s ripe for fiction.

Daniella and Eve are such distinct characters. Was it difficult to write in alternating perspectives? Was one easier to write than the other?

To oversimplify: I was more like Eve as a young woman, more like Daniella in my middle age. (Although Daniella’s work with the Southern Center for Human Rights makes her heroic in ways that I could never be.) As a young woman I was more impulsive, more certain about my convictions, more absolute. In my middle age, though I actually believe my core beliefs have strengthened, I’m a lot more comfortable saying “I don’t know.” I’m a lot more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty, of recognizing that two seemingly competing facts can both be true. So, it was not hard for me to go back and forth between Daniella and Eve.

This novel covers an incredible span of time—from the early 1960s to the 1990s. How did you choose what parts to dramatize and what to summarize?

Good question, and one I wrestled with during the course of writing this book. I had a harder time figuring out what to dramatize and what to leave out of the first half of the novel, which takes place from 1962 to 1973. I realized that instead of attempting to somehow sum up an era (impossible!), I would instead write about little moments that changed specific people. So, I focused not on the civil rights movement as a whole but on Daniella’s specific experience in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, being so embraced by the Lewis family, having a gun held to her head by a young white man—those moments that would affect her for the rest of her life. With both Eve and Daniella, I tried to locate the moments that left a deep imprint, that shaped the women they would later become.

What kind of research did you do to bring the disparate elements of this novel to life so vividly?

I read a lot of biographies—I joked to my husband that it seemed that nearly every former member of the Weather Underground wrote an autobiography. And I read a collection of letters written by participants in the Mississippi Freedom Summer that gave me great insight into what Daniella would have experienced during that time (Letters from Mississippi, edited by Elizabeth Martínez). I read a lot of histories exploring the sixties and seventies, both from conservative and liberal perspectives; I watched a lot of documentaries. I also did some primary source research, looking up old issues of Atlanta’s now defunct underground newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird. I also looked into historical documents covering the razing of Buttermilk Bottom, the neighborhood where Ada once lived. I bought a vintage copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves. And I researched some of the cases that the Southern Poverty Law Center has taken on over the years, and read Bryan Stevenson’s magnificent Just Mercy to learn more about what Daniella might have been doing during her time working with indigent prisoners on death row.

What scene was most fun to write? What was most challenging?

I had fun writing the Fleur chapter, when Daniella and Eve went through rush. I started college at a big state university and was in a sorority during my one year there. I was always ambivalent about the Greek system. I actually dropped out of my sorority during the middle of spring semester, but the chapter president, thinking I would later regret it, never sent in my resignation papers, so technically I’m still a member. (Just as Grandmommy made certain Eve’s resignation papers were never mailed in!) The experience of rush imprinted pretty deeply on me—it was so intense, both weirdly intimate and so very formalized. It was cathartic to write about it. Also, I wanted to tell the story of my friend’s mother, who was excluded from the coveted sororities at Chapel Hill in the 1960s, because she was Jewish. Her story stuck with me, and I wanted to share it.

It’s a no-brainer to say that the most challenging scene to write was the one where Eve skins the cat. First of all, I had to research the actual logistics of how one would go about doing that, and it quite literally turned my stomach (I looked up how to skin a rabbit). But also, I’m a cat lover, a firm believer that a home is not a home without a cat, so I just had to sort of turn off my brain while writing. That scene is based on rumors that members of the Weathermen skinned and ate a cat to show they had truly renounced their “bourgeois values,” to prove that they would do anything for the Revolution. Former member Bill Ayers denies that anyone ever ate cat; indeed, he makes light of those rumors in the second of his two autobiographies. Mark Rudd, also a former member, and one whose witness rings more truthful to me, says it sounds very much like something they might have done, but if so, he never saw it. Whether it happened or not, it was the perfect metaphor for how “pure” ideology, removed from love and humility, can take you completely off the rails. But I hope I never have to write a scene like that again.

What inspired the dual timelines and friendships in this novel, that between Eve and Daniella and between Anna and Sarah?

I began writing about Eve and Daniella as young, idealistic women, who start out more or less on the same page. I was interested in the idea that two people can hold the same beliefs about justice, and then have those beliefs take them in such radically different directions. Daniella’s early activism led to the strengthening of her true core, whereas Eve was led astray by Warren and by Smash’s brutal ideology. After Eve goes off the rails and finds herself pregnant and alone in Atlanta, her longtime lover presumably blown to pieces by a bomb, she tries to reinvent herself as the soft, southern woman she was born to be. She meets Bob, who very much wants her to be that woman and who wants to claim the baby she is carrying as his own. After Eve latches on to Bob, it only made sense to jump to ten years later, when that baby is now a fifth grader, living inside the myth her mother had created about her life. Would the myth stay intact? How much would Eve have to contort herself in order to keep the myth alive? I could only explore those questions by exploring Anna and Sarah’s story, too.

Smash bears some resemblance to the Weather Underground, which was active in New York during this period. How do you think the real-life group influenced your choices in the novel?

While Smash is its own beast, I was absolutely influenced by the Weather Underground. In fact, it was watching Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s excellent 2002 documentary, The Weather Underground, that first inspired me to write this novel. That, and the 1999 arrest of former SLA member Kathleen Soliah, who had gone underground in the 1970s after warrants were released for her arrest, reinvented herself as Sara Jane Olson, and lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, along with her physician husband and three daughters. She acted in community theater, she volunteered, she cooked gourmet meals to raise funds for good causes, and . . . she was a fugitive from the law. (How could a novelist’s mind not be sparked?)

The Weather Underground was fascinating to me because up to a point I agreed with their thinking on racism in America and imperialism abroad. But then, it seemed to me, their ideology became toxic, nihilistic, soul crushing. And I’m fascinated by how so many (though not all) of its former members have tried to reinvent themselves—not by denying their involvement but by sanitizing their past statements and actions.

Family ties—those chosen and those by blood—are a major component of this novel, as is the idea of Eve and Daniella’s sisterhood. Are these common themes in your novels? Why?

All of my novels explore the idea of biological and chosen families. I think this is because my own family was confusing to me as a child. I am the only and much-loved biological child of my parents, each of whom had children from their first marriages. All of my siblings were “halves.” My siblings had “whole,” “half,” and “step-” brothers and sisters. Some of us lived together; some of us did not. There was great disparity in the lifestyle of those who lived with my parents and those who did not: some of us went to private school, some public; some of us were raised in a mainline Protestant church, some in a fundamentalist church. Yet we were told that we were all one, big happy family, united by my parents’ great love for each other. And there was some truth in that—in fact, my parents have had a wonderful, endearing love. But there were a lot of cracks in the facade of our unity, a lot of fractures, a lot of myths. And I think I’ve spent my entire adult life writing about the exposure of myths in fictitious families as a way of processing my own.

What do you hope readers take away from the novel?

For starters, I hope that readers who did not know much about the Mississippi Summer Project, i.e., “Freedom Summer,” will come away with more knowledge of what happened during those months and will look deeper into the lives of modern-day prophets such as Bob Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer. And I hope readers will reflect on the fact that we are all culpable, all fallible, all very much human. Even Daniella, who I see as pretty morally centered, refused to help Ada purchase the house she so richly deserved, the house that would have changed the quality of her life for the better. So, I suppose I hope that this book will help readers look at their blind spots—God knows I have them. And I hope that readers, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, will recognize how dangerous ideological purity is—removed from love, removed from mercy, removed from compassion. I hope this book encourages readers to seek justice, but with love.

What are you working on next?

I’m just in the note-taking stage right now, but I’m interested in exploring a countercultural family living in a gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta during the Reagan years, the father a left wing, activist Protestant minister.

About The Author

Photograph by Jennifer Riggs

Susan Rebecca White is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Bound South, A Soft Place to Land, and A Place at the Table. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins University, Susan has taught creative writing at Hollins, Emory, SCAD, and Mercer University, where she was the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Chair of English Writer-in-Residence. An Atlanta native, Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband and son.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (August 6, 2019)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451608915

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Raves and Reviews

“Masterful…with a surgeon’s delicate precision, White examines sensitive and timely topics such as race, gender inequality, sexual abuse, religion and sexuality…the author captures the complexities of Atlanta’s history in a riveting way reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full.”

– The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"White’s fascinating window into history held me spellbound, watching two privileged sorority girls run headlong into the brutal history of America’s civil rights movement. This is a book with serious scope and vision, people by characters so flawed and human you can almost hear them breathing. White understands the ways that the past remains alive inside the present; she uses the intensely personal story of how a mother’s choices haunt her child to light up all the ways in which our own country remains haunted by its past. White never shies away from the hard questions, but she also never loses compassion for her flawed, fully-fleshed, oh-so-human characters. Intense, complex, and wholly immersive, WE ARE ALL GOOD PEOPLE HERE is an engrossing tale told by a writer who combines rare empathy with an exquisite eye for detail. I was blown away."

– Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of The Almost Sisters

"In Susan Rebecca White's gem of a novel, she weaves together a captivating story of two women who forge a bond as teenagers in the '60s and carry that friendship through a lifetime of social and personal change. This is a meaningful, resonant story about the resilience of friendship, and an artful portrayal of the reckoning when two women's--as well as an entire country's--past finally meets the present. I loved this book."

– Emily Giffin, author of All We Ever Wanted

“Susan Rebecca White has set down a brave portrayal of the white liberal female in her new novel We Are All Good People Here. This is a glimmering mosaic of a book, where tiny, shining pieces from the lives of two women running on parallel courses coalesce to create a stunning picture of a time and place, the fringes of a movement. In these characters, I found pieces of my friends, of myself, enough to make me care deeply and think hard, even shift uncomfortably in my seat. Read it.” 

– Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

"This latest from White is highly recommended for its absorbing characterization and engrossing plot that perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s. For readers who enjoyed Emma Cline’s The Girls or Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

"The upheaval of the 60's was not only political: especially for women, ethical choices were complicated by love, sex, and, not least, money. White handles that complexity with gentleness and empathy....a well-paced narrative palpably evokes America's stormy past."

– Kirkus Reviews

"We Are All Good People Here asks questions like some of us may ask ourselves in these crazy times: Is it possible to separate our political choices and our values? As we grow older and as we evolve, do we ever truly escape our history?"   

– Bitter Southerner

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