“Your heart will break…then soar” (Redbook) when, far from the neon lights of the Vegas strip, three lives collide in a split-second mistake and a child’s fate hangs in the balance.
Avis thought her marriage had hit a temporary rut. But with a single confession in the middle of the night, her carefully constructed life comes undone. After escaping a tumultuous childhood and raising a son, she now faces a future without the security of the home and family she has spent decades building.
Luis only wants to make the grandmother who raised him proud. As a soldier, he was on his way to being the man she taught him to be until he woke up in Walter Reed Hospital with vague and troubling memories of how he got there. Now he must find a new way to live a life of honor.
Every day, young Bashkim looks forward to the quiet order of school and the kind instruction of his third grade teacher. His family relocated to Las Vegas after fleeing political persecution in their homeland. Now their ice cream truck provides just enough extra income to keep them afloat. With his family under constant stress, Bashkim opens his heart to his pen pal, a US soldier.
When these lives come together in a single, shocking moment, each character is called upon to rise. “You’ll be thinking about these characters long after you finish this haunting, heart-wrenching, and hopeful book” (Houston Chronicle).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Laura McBride lives in Las Vegas and teaches composition at the College of Southern Nevada. She is the author of the novels We Are Called to Rise and In the Midnight Room.
Read an Excerpt
We Are Called to Rise
THERE WAS A YEAR of no desire. I don’t know why. Margo said I was depressed; Jill thought it was “the change.” That phrase made me laugh. I didn’t think I was depressed. I still grinned when I saw the roadrunner waiting to join me on my morning walk. I still stopped to look at the sky when fat clouds piled up against the blue, or in the evenings when it streaked orange and purple in the west. Those moments did not feel like depression.
But I didn’t desire my husband, and there was no certain reason for it, and as the months went by, the distance between us grew. I tried to talk myself out of this, but my body would not comply. Finally, I decided to rely on what in my case would be mother wisdom, or as Sharlene would say, “to fake it till you make it.”
That night, I eased myself out of bed carefully, not wanting to fully wake Jim. I had grown up in Las Vegas, grown up seeing women prance around in sparkling underwear, learned how to do the same prancing in the same underwear when I was barely fifteen, but years of living in another Las Vegas, decades of being a suburban wife, a mother, a woman of a certain social standing, had left me uneasy with sequined bras and crotchless panties. My naughty-underwear drawer was still there—the long narrow one on the left side of my dresser—but I couldn’t even remember the last time I had opened it. My heart skipped a little when I imagined slipping on a black lace corset and kneeling over Jim in bed. Well, I had made a decision, and I was going to do it. I would not give up on twenty-nine years of marriage without at least trying this.
So I padded quietly over to the dresser, and eased open the narrow drawer. I was expecting the bits of lace and satin, even sequins, but nestled among them, obscenely, was a gun. It made me gasp. How had a gun gotten in this drawer?
I recognized it, though. Jim had given it to me when Emily was a baby. He had insisted that I keep a gun. Because he traveled. Because someone might break in. I had tried to explain that I would never use it. I wouldn’t aim a gun at someone any more than I would drown a kitten. There were decisions I had made about my life a long time ago; firing a gun was on that list. But there were things Jim could not hear me say, and in the end, it was easier just to accept the gun, just to let him hide it in one of those silly fake books on the third shelf of the closet, where, if I had thought about it—and I never did—I would have assumed it still was.
How long had the gun been in this drawer? Had Jim put it there? Was he sending a message? Had Jim wanted to make the point that I hadn’t looked in this drawer for years? Hadn’t worn red-sequined panties in years? Had Jim been thinking the same way I had, that maybe what we needed was a little romance, a little fun, a little hot sex in the middle of the kitchen, in order to start over?
I could hear Jim stirring behind me. He would be looking at me, naked in front of our sex drawer. Things weren’t going exactly the way I had intended, but I shook my bottom a little, just to give him a hint at what I was doing.
I stopped then, not sure what that cough meant. I didn’t even want to touch the gun, but I carefully eased the closest bit of satin out from under the barrel, still thinking that I would find a way to slip it on and maybe dance my way back to the bed.
“I’m in love with Darcy. We’ve been seeing each other for a while.”
It was like the gun had gone off. There I was, naked, having just wagged my fifty-three-year-old ass, and there he was, somewhere behind me, knowing what I had been about to do, confessing to an affair with a woman in his office who was almost young enough to be our daughter.
Was he confessing to an affair? Had he just said he was in love with her? The room melted around me. Something—shock, humiliation, disbelief—perhaps just the sudden image of Darcy’s young bottom juxtaposed against the image I had of my own bottom in the hall mirror—punched the air out of me.
“I wanted to tell you. I know I should have told you.”
Surely, this was not happening. Jim? Jim was having an affair with Darcy? (Or had he said he was in love?) Like the fragment of an old song, my mother’s voice played in my mind. “Always leave first, Avis. Get the hell out before they get the hell out on you.” That was Sharlene’s mantra: get the hell out first. She’d even said it to me on my wedding day. It wasn’t the least surprising that she’d said it, but still, I had resented that comment for years. And, look, here she was: right. It took twenty-nine years. Two kids. A lot of pain. But Sharlene had been right.
It all came rushing in then. Emily. And Nate. And the years with Sharlene. The hard years. The good years. Why Jim had seemed so distant. The shock of Jim’s words, as I stood there, still naked, still with my back to my husband, my ass burning with shame, brought it all rushing in. So many feelings I had been trying not to feel. It seemed suddenly that the way I had been trying to explain things to myself—the way I had pretended the coolness in my marriage was just a bad patch; the way I had kept rejecting the signs that something was wrong with Nate, that Nate had changed, that I was afraid for Nate (afraid of Nate?); the way that getting older bothered me, though I was trying not to care, trying not to notice that nobody noticed me, trying not to be anything like Sharlene—it seemed suddenly that all of that, all of those emotions and all of that pretending, just came rushing toward me, a torpedo of shame and failure and fear. Jim was in love with Darcy. My son had come back from Iraq a different man. My crazy mother had been right. And my whole life, how hard I had tried, had come to this. I could not bear for Jim to see what I was feeling.
How could I possibly turn around?
I AM NINE YEARS OLD, and inspecting the bathtub before getting in. I ignore the brown gunk caked around the spigot, and the yellow tear-shaped stain spreading out from the drain; I can’t do much about those. No, I am looking for anything that moves, and the seriousness with which I undertake this task masks the sound of my mother entering, a good hour before I expect her home from work.
“Yep. You sure have got the Briggs girl ass. That’ll come in handy some day.”
She laughs, like she has said something funny. I am frustrated that my mother has walked in the bathroom without knocking, and I don’t want to think about what she has just said. I step in the bathtub quick, bugs or not, and pull the plastic shower curtain closed.
“Should you be taking a bath? What if Rodney walked away?”
“He won’t,” I say, miffed that she is criticizing my babysitting skills. “He’s watching Gilligan’s Island.”
“Okay,” she says, and I hear her move out of the bathroom and toward the kitchen. She is going to make a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Sharlene is twenty-seven years old, and she loves peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
“I’M SORRY, AVIS. I NEVER wanted to hurt you.”
I was still standing naked at the drawer, my back to Jim, the red satin fabric in my hand. I didn’t know what to say to that. I couldn’t seem to think straight, I couldn’t seem to keep my mind on what was happening right that moment. Did Jim just say he was in love with Darcy? Why had I opened this drawer?
And still I was racing toward Jim’s apology, grateful for it, hopeful. One of the first things I ever knew about Jim was that he was willing to apologize.
I AM TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD, and working at the front desk of the Golden Nugget casino. It’s taken years to get where I am, years to extricate myself from Sharlene, years to create the quiet, orderly life that means so much to me. That day, Jim is just one more man flirting with the front desk clerk, one more moderately drunk tourist wanting to know if I am free that evening; I barely register that he has said he will be back for a real conversation at four. And, of course, he is not back. But at ten to five, he rushes up, carrying a bar of chocolate, and tickets to Siegfried and Roy at the Frontier. I hear his very first apology.
“I’m sorry. I know you thought I wasn’t serious, but I was. I couldn’t get here at four. I was hitting numbers at the craps table, and if I’d left, I would have caused a small riot. Please forgive me. You don’t even have to go to the show with me. You can take a friend.”
That’s how he apologized. All straightforward and a bit flustered and as if he meant it, as if I were someone who deserved better from him.
I WAS WONDERING WHY THE gun was in the drawer. I was thinking that I would have to turn around. I was acutely aware of being naked. I didn’t know which one of those problems to address first. Turning around. Being naked. Figuring out how the gun got in the drawer. And, of course, none of those were the real problem.
“I didn’t mean to fall in love with her. It just happened. We’ve been spending a lot of time together at work. You’ve been so distant. I don’t know. I didn’t plan it.”
He just kept talking. He seemed to think that I was listening. That he should talk. As if the fact that he didn’t plan it could make it better. He said he was in love with her. Was that supposed to make me feel better? I wanted to get angry—I wanted to grab at the lifeboat of anger—but instead, my mind kept repeating—cover your ass, where did the gun come from, always get the hell out first, did he say he was in love—as if I were on some whirling psychotropic trip.
I AM SEVEN YEARS OLD, and Sharlene and Rodney and I have been living in and out of Steve’s brown Thunderbird for a year. We fill the tank with gas whenever my mom can pick someone’s pocket or Steve can sell some dope, and then get back on the road, driving until we are almost out of gas, until Sharlene sees a place where we can camp without the cops catching us, where there is a park bathroom we can use if we are careful not to be seen. We have criss-crossed the country, even driven into Canada. That was a mistake, because the border patrol might have stopped us. But they didn’t.
The craziest thing about that year in Steve’s car is that there are thousands of dollars crammed under the front seats. Steve has stolen the money, stolen it from a casino, and we are on the lam because he is afraid of getting killed, because he knows the owner of the casino will have him killed the instant he knows where he is, and Steve has decided the bills are marked, that the casino owner—some guy Steve calls Big Sandy—has written down the numbers on the bills and has banks looking for them. So he is afraid to spend any of it, not one dollar of it. Even when we are hungry, even when Rodney cries and cries because his ear hurts, Steve does not give in; he does not spend any of that cash, any of those bills. They sometimes waft up when the car’s windows are open, and Rodney and I try to catch them, and Steve slams on the brakes and swerves the car and screams at us that not one bill can fly out the window.
“AVIS, I’VE BEEN TRYING TO figure out how to tell you. I didn’t mean for it to be like this. I didn’t mean . . .”
His voice trailed off. He didn’t mean for me to be stark naked and totally exposed when he told me? Then why had he told me?
Oh, yeah, things were about to get awkward.
Awkward if you were in love with your girlfriend.
I lifted my hand to put the bit of satin back in the drawer, and I touched my fingers to the cold, hard metal of the gun barrel. I had never liked guns. I was afraid of them. Afraid of the people who had them.
IT TAKES SHARLENE A LONG time, all of the year I might have been in second grade, but finally she has had enough. She waits until Steve is passed out stoned, and then she grabs huge fistfuls of the cash under the seats, and she grabs us—I remember being grateful that she had grabbed us, that she had not left us with Steve—and we walk to an all-night diner. We hitch a ride with a truck driver, and after Sharlene and the truck driver are done in the bed in the back of the cab, we get a real hotel room, and a shower. Sharlene stays in that shower until the water goes cold, and each time that the water warms up, she showers some more, and after a night and a day and a night of her showering—with Rodney and me watching television sitting under the pebbled pink comforter, pretending it is a teepee, watching all through the day and the night, whatever shows come on—after that, on the second day, we take a bus, and we are back in Las Vegas.
“WHY IS THERE A GUN in this drawer?”
It was the first thing I had said since Jim started talking. I realized it must have sounded incongruous. It was the only thing I could make my mouth say.
“The gun. Our gun. It’s in this drawer.”
I was still naked. My back was still to him.
“I don’t know. The gun?”
He sounded shaken. He was wondering if I had heard him. He didn’t know what I was talking about.
WE STAY IN A SHELTER when we first get back to Vegas, where I sleep on a cot near a man who burps rotgut whiskey and we line up for breakfast with a lady who screams that Betty Grable is trying to kill her. After a couple of nights, we move to a furnished motel where Sharlene can pay the rent weekly. That motel is not too far from the motel we lived in before Sharlene met Steve, though it is not the same one we lived in when Rodney was born, and it is not the same one we lived in when Sharlene first came to Vegas—when Sharlene came to Vegas with me, just a baby, and the boyfriend who owned the 1951 Henry J. The Henry J broke down in Colorado, and Sharlene and I and the boyfriend had to hitchhike the rest of the way to Vegas. That’s what Sharlene told me anyway, that’s what I know about how I got to Vegas—that, and that the Henry J was a red car without any way to get into the trunk.
But they were mostly the same, those furnished motels. They all had rats, which didn’t even scurry when I stamped my small foot, and mattresses stained with urine and vomit and blood. In all of them, the neon lights of dilapidated downtown casinos blinked through the kinked slats of broken window blinds.
“THIS GUN USED TO BE in the closet. Did you put it in this drawer?”
I didn’t know why I was asking these questions. I didn’t care why the gun was in the drawer. I just had to say something, and nothing else that occurred to me to say was possible.
“I put it there. I forgot. I mean, I forgot until just now.”
I waited. Still naked. Was he still looking?
“It was a long time ago. At least a year. I had it out. I was looking at it. And you came in the room. I just wanted to put it away before you saw it. I meant to go back and get it, but I forgot about it. Until just now.”
I thought about this. The gun had been in the drawer for a year. Jim was looking at it. He didn’t want me to see him looking at it.
“Is it loaded?”
I heard Jim move, quickly. I almost laughed. I didn’t know why I had asked if it was loaded, but I had no intention of shooting it. And suddenly, it was not funny. Did my husband just imagine that I would aim the gun at him? That I was asking him if it was loaded so that I could hurt him?
What had happened to us?
WE DIDN’T STAY IN THAT furnished motel very long. Sharlene got the shakes. She said she couldn’t be alone, not with Rodney and me anyway. So we went to live with a friend from the bar where Sharlene used to work. We lived there for four months, and while we were there, Sharlene smoked and talked and cried, night after night, with her friend. And then she stopped crying and she started laughing. And when Sharlene and her friend had collapsed on the floor, laughing about Steve and the bills and the wind from the windows, for the third time, I knew we would be leaving the friend’s house, and we would be going somewhere else. Eventually there would be another man, and another apartment, and if I were lucky, another school. I would go back to school.
“IT’S NOT LOADED. AVIS, PLEASE. Turn around. Just look at me.”
I didn’t care that I was naked anymore, and I didn’t care that Jim had apologized, and I wasn’t even thinking about what he had said about Darcy. I had reached some sort of disembodied state, and what I was thinking about was whether the gun might be loaded after all, and why Jim had been looking at it a year ago, and if there was still any way to get my life back.
I picked up the gun, and it was heavy for something that looked like a toy. I remembered this from the one time Jim had showed me how to shoot it. It took me a second to open the chamber, to hold the gun so that the slide would move back properly. I felt oddly pleased at the automatic way that I had opened the bottom of the gun, released the magazine, checked it for bullets. As Jim had said: no bullets.
No bullets. What about all those stories? All those guns that weren’t supposed to be loaded? All those toddlers killed, eyes shot out, lives broken? Bullets could hide.
I AM TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD, in the parking lot of the Boulevard Mall at an Opportunity Village fund-raiser. Emily is done walking, wants none of her stroller, sits perched on Jim’s shoulders. Small grubby fingers cling to his hair, his ear, his nose, as she rocks there. Jim sees the truck, so I buy the ice cream, the simplest one I can find, but still a swirl of blue and yellow dye.
Emily is amazed at this experience. At the truck, at the kids clustered next to it, at the excited chortle of their voices choosing treats. And then the ice cream itself. Cold! Her tongue laps in and out.
“Jim, her eyes are like a lemur’s. She can’t believe she gets to eat that thing.”
She kicks her small feet into his collarbone.
“Whoa there, pardner,” he says.
“Oh, I’m afraid it’s getting in your hair.”
“I can feel it.”
In fact, the ice cream drips along his ear and down his neck, and before she has eaten half of it, Emily has dropped the whole soggy thing on his head. And then she puts her hands in his hair, lays her cheek on the ice cream, and says, as clear and sweet as those ice-cream truck chimes, “Good daddy.”
So what can he do? Except walk around in the heat with a cream-streaked child on his head, blue and yellow stripes dripping down his shirt, and me laughing.
And later, just weeks later, when Emily’s fever hasn’t responded to the Tylenol, when we have raced to the ER, when the nurse has plunged her in a tub of water, when the fever will not abate, when the doctor says it is meningitis, when he says it sometimes comes on fast like this, when thirty-seven hours and twenty-eight minutes and a hundred million infinite seconds pass, when Emily lies there, tiny in the ICU bed, her breathing labored, then faint, then fluttery (like a little bird), then gone, then a single heart-stopping gasp, and then, again, gone. And no gasp. Later, after all of it, I am so glad we bought that ice-cream treat.
“AVIS, I KNOW YOU ARE upset. I promise I will do right by you. We can figure this out.”
“What about Nate?”
“Nate? I don’t know. We’ll have to tell him. Avis, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about this. I don’t know what we’re doing. What about Nate?”
“There’s something wrong with Nate. He’s different. You know he’s different. Something happened to him. And he’s not getting better. I know you’ve seen this.”
“Avis. We’re not talking about Nate right now.”
“But we are. We are talking about Nate. What you are talking about is everything. Me, you, Nate, Emily, everything. We are talking about everything.”
I had always known that I would never stop loving the man who left that little girl asleep on his head in the sun. But Jim must have held no equivalent debt to me. There was no image that kept him from falling out of love with me, no matter what happened, no matter how many times. No equivalent moment to a soggy ice-cream-stained child glued to his hopelessly knotted hair.
He stood up and moved behind me. I startled, and he breathed in. Jim was still thinking of the gun. He had said it was not loaded, but it bothered him anyway: the gun, and that I was holding it, and that I had not yet turned around. Then he pressed my bathrobe against my shoulders, offering it to me without quite touching me, his cheek very near my hair.
And I folded. I slipped to the ground with the bathrobe around me, and the tears began. I could not stop them. Awkwardly, Jim put his hand on my back, but I shrugged him away. He stood up and went out. Then I cried harder. Because I wanted Jim to hold me. Because how could I want Jim to hold me?
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for We Are Called to Rise includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laura McBride. 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.
We Are Called to Rise is told in four distinct voices—an immigrant boy whose family is struggling to assimilate, a middle-aged housewife coping with an imploding marriage and a troubled son, a social worker at home in the darker corners of Las Vegas, and a wounded soldier recovering from an injury he can’t remember getting—voices that come together around a tragedy changing those four lives forever. Each of the four struggles with ramifications of the choices that have led to this event, and all four discover that our lives are connected and we are responsible for one another.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Which of the three main narrators—Bashkim, Avis, Luis, was the most effective?
2. The setting, Las Vegas, is so pervasive it is almost a character in its own right. Talk about how the author uses the dry desert town as a backdrop and as an integral piece of the story. Discuss the juxtaposition of glamorous casinos with the ordinary suburban lives so many of the characters lead. How does the backdrop of the world of gambling, sex, and money impact the characters in their everyday lives? Do you think this story could have taken place anywhere else?
3. The landscape of Nevada is compared several times to that of Iraq and Afghanistan. What other connections do you see between the Western state and the war zones of the East that affect so many of the characters?
4. Throughout the story Avis struggles with how much responsibility she has for her son’s actions. How does her own childhood impact the parenting decisions she makes? What about the loss of Emily? How much blame does Avis bear for what has happened to Nate throughout his life? When are parents accountable for the actions of their children?
5. Luis carries guilt for not protecting his partner, Sam, and also for accidentally shooting a boy in Iraq; when we first meet him, he is recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He suffers both mentally and physically, but which bothers him more? Is his recovery more about healing his body or his soul? How does the act of writing to Bashkim help him with both?
6. How does seeing events through Bashkim’s eyes influence our understanding of the story? Do you find Bashkim’s narrative of the novel’s more serious events to be reliable? Why or why not?
7. Roberta is, in many ways, the narrator we know the least about. She has the fewest sections, and the parts of the story she narrates are almost entirely focused on other people. How is seeing this story through the eyes of a largely unknown character different from a character’s life story that is more fleshed out?
8. Avis is heartbroken over her husband’s infidelity and desire for divorce. But we find out that she, too, has been tempted, and that she even secretly kissed another man. When Jim says that Darcy was somebody he could talk to, somebody who “helped him think about things,” Avis wonders, What does that have to do with ending our marriage? Is she questioning why Jim thought he couldn’t just have a woman friend? Or is she saying that she’d prefer to go on not knowing that Darcy and Jim are now lovers? What do you think she means by this question? (Would you want to know if your partner were cheating?)
9. We’re more than halfway through the book before we begin to see how each of the characters’ stories intersects with the others. What is the narrative impact of seeing each story unfold individually? What are the benefits of this story structure? What are the drawbacks? Do you think the way the stories come together is effective?
10. At the final court proceeding the judge says, “If, sometimes, an unspeakable horror arises from the smallest error, I choose to believe that it’s possible for an equally unimaginable grandeur to grow from the tiniest gesture of love. . . . Great terror is the result of a thousand small but evil choices, and great good is the outcome of another thousand tiny acts of care.” Do you agree with this?
11. “Things happen to us that are more than we can take. And we break. We break for a moment, for a while. But the break is not who we are.” These words are spoken to Luis by Dr. Ghosh. Do you agree that the break is not who we are? Or do you believe that what we do when we break shows who we truly are? How do you see each of the main characters reflected in this statement?
12. The title of this novel is quoted from an Emily Dickinson poem—the epigraph at the beginning of the book. What do you make of the poem? How do you see each of the characters in this story rising? Do you see the title as ultimately optimistic? Do you see the book the same way?
13. Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears in the first act of a play, that gun must go off before the end of the story. This book opens with the discovery of a gun, but that gun is tossed away partway through the book. Guns, however, are an integral part of the plot. Discuss the role of guns in this story, both in actuality and as metaphor.
14. What do you make of the judge’s decision to place Bashkim and Tirana with Graciela and Luis? Does that seem realistic to you? Why or why not? Do you think they would have been better off with their father? What solution would you have chosen for these children?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are dozens of movies set in Las Vegas, old classics such as Viva Las Vegas, the original Ocean’s Eleven, and Diamonds are Forever, and also contemporary favorites such as Leaving Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Showgirls, and The Hangover. View one of the films together and discuss how the unique setting influences the story.
2. Both Nate and Luis suffer from forms of post-traumatic stress disorder or combat stress after serving in the military. This is a common response to war, though many soldiers returning home from war are ashamed to seek help for the psychological scars they carry from their time serving. Research one of the organizations that aims to help these servicemen and women, such as The Soldiers Project (http://www.thesoldiersproject.org/) and discuss how you could help as a group.
3. The Ahmeti family members are refugees from Albania, a country many Americans know very little about. Do some research on Albania’s history, geography, and culture, and discuss their effect on how Sadik, Arjeta, and even Bashkim understand the world they now live in.
A Conversation with Laura McBride
The heart of this novel is based on a true incident, though you have created a fictional story around it. Was it difficult to let go of the facts of the story and let your characters take over? How much did you think about the real people involved as you wrote?
I didn’t want to write about the real people, so I took the three or four facts that were stuck in my head, and tried to imagine my way in. I like to work this way. I hear a snippet of a news report or an interview or a radio program, and I ask myself: Who would have done that? Why? And then what? It is something of a mental game that has amused me through dull commutes, and it was not difficult at all. I’ve probably been doing it since I was seven years old. So, in short, I didn’t think about the real people. The parts of the story that are actual—those facts, the places, how certain things work in Las Vegas—were, for me, a way to keep the story anchored. I used all of those actualities to ground the imagined world in my head, not to create it.
You write in the author’s note: “One thing that almost kept me from writing my story was that it was so unbearably sad. . . . So the challenge I set myself was this: could I write a story that accepted the full unbearableness, and still left one wanting to wake up in the morning?” How did you work to achieve that lightness and optimism which ultimately pervade such a tragic story?
I suppose it was a single choice, made on the first day I started writing. I decided that Bashkim had to be safe at the end. On the very last page, I had to leave him with a chance. That shaped everything.
It’s hard for me to think about whether the story ended up light or tragic; I don’t have that much distance from my words. I guess I am someone who fully inhabits the way that life is painful, and I am also someone who is naturally a bit lighthearted. It doesn’t take much to please me. So in fact my world is lighthearted and heavy at once. I don’t remember choosing this. It seems I have always felt the sadness of others as if it were my own, and also, I have always been easily delighted. If these traits come out in the story, it might just be that they reflect my own temperament.
Which character was the most difficult for you to write? Which was the easiest? Which was your favorite?
Avis was the most difficult! She was awful. I struggled and struggled to get the voice of a woman who is questioning and disappointed and confused and courageous at once. Some early readers liked her, but others found her self-pitying and small, which was not how I imagined her at all. Sometimes I thought that she suffered from what it means to be an aging woman in our society—which is that perhaps we don’t like aging women very much—and so there wasn’t much room to let her express unattractive qualities.
Bashkim was the easiest. I didn’t think I would like to write in the voice of a child, but once I had it down, he just chattered away in my head. I couldn’t get his words on the page fast enough. I would be typing, and suddenly laugh at something he said, or tear up at his sweet ways—and I was doing the writing! He was so real that I sometimes miss him. One day I saw a little boy crossing the street to school, and he was so very Bashkim-like; I drove to work with this odd sense of having left him behind me.
I suppose that I feel the closest in nature to Luis, or that might not be right, that we are close in nature. I feel closest to his predicament—a very young person who has done something irrevocable, for which he cannot forgive himself, and which he almost cannot bear. Bashkim loses his mother, and Avis has lived her life so alone, but Luis bears the brutal weight of an error that mattered.
You live in Las Vegas, and that city comes alive in all its glorious complexity in this story. What did you hope to convey about Las Vegas to readers who know it only for its famous strip?
I set the story in Las Vegas because I live here, and because it is a fascinating place, but I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t set out to show the world a different side of Vegas. My idea of Vegas (which is opinionated and specific and idiosyncratic) is just one way of looking at the place.
I suppose the resonant quality of Las Vegas for me is that it is a boomtown. People come from all over the world, for all sorts of reasons, and they live in whatever houses were being built the year they arrived, next to whoever else arrived that year, and there’s this salmagundi of cultures and ideas and experiences. I don’t know how long this fluidity will last; already the town feels less mixed up than it once did, but for many years Vegas rocked with boomtown energy: with people starting anew, their pasts stripped away, their futures mutable. And all of that was marked by constant cultural collision.
Boomtowns also struggle. Vegas sits in a largely rural state with a small institutional infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved here quickly; tens of millions visit each year. Things go wrong. Essential tasks don’t get done. Absurdities happen. Tragedies occur. Surprises abound. Every engaged Las Vegan has stories. The pace of change, the breadth of potential conflicts are mind-boggling. And they set up a place where astounding things happen. For better and for worse.
You write with such depth and compassion about the inner workings of the foster care system. Is this something you have experience with, or did you have to do a lot of research? What was your experience writing about such a harrowing and challenging system, especially as a mother?
Well, I didn’t do any research (so that’s fair warning), but I did have some familiarity with the child welfare system in Las Vegas. I didn’t find writing about it, or about Roberta’s work, harrowing—perhaps because I have had a lot of years to accept what is. I think it is a truth of a place like Las Vegas that the systems can be very, very weak, but also that individuals can have a commensurately important role. Weak systems create chaos, which is generally bad, but they also allow for certain strengths. A better system might not have the flexibility to accept the sort of solution that happens in this story, but that solution is not so far from things I have seen happen here.
Both Nate and Luis come back from war with something akin to PTSD, and both make very bad choices because of it. Do you believe that war necessarily changes people? Do you have experience with veterans and the unique challenges they face?
One of my great-uncles fought in Italy in World War II. He went in early in the campaign, and he stayed to the end. He saw a lot of young men die quickly, and when he came home, he asked his mother to tie him to the bed at night. I used to love visits from this uncle. He was a cook in a hotel, an immigrant, and he would bring these huge cooking knives to our house, and coolers of fish, and—although he had very little—a silver dollar for each child. My mother told me the story about his being tied to the bed when I was quite small, and even when my uncle was singing or laughing, I would wonder about those nights with his hands strapped to the bedpost.
Probably more relevant to my novel is that I teach at a community college in a town with a large military presence, so I frequently have soldiers in my classes. My classes are not confessional—I teach academic composition and literature—but they are the sorts of classes where the truth sometimes will out. I had been paying attention to the overall arc of these students’ attitudes about the war: from high patriotism to deep frustration to fatigue and confusion and difficulty fitting back in. I think the normal response of anyone witnessing this is to feel it, to have heart for the pain of those experiences. That was certainly playing in my mind as I was writing.
You attended Yaddo, a prestigious artists’ retreat. What was that like? In what ways did that help you on your path to publication? What was the process of publication like?
Oh, yadda, yadda . . . Yaddo! It was such an adventure for me. I was stunned when I got in. I had all sorts of questions about what it would be like, but I didn’t know whom to ask, so I just showed up—with camping gear, of all things. And then I stayed in a lovely room, fully appointed, and ate delicious meals prepared by the Yaddo chefs—on china—in a mansion. It was so funny.
The point of going to Yaddo is to do a lot of work, and I did a lot of writing, very fast, while I was there. I think I wrote the last 150 pages of the draft in the first two weeks of my stay. But the other experience of Yaddo is to be surrounded by fellow artists—writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers—all working very hard in their own studios each day, and all coming together at dinner to share stories, and have debates, and laugh—oh my gosh, we laughed and laughed.
And we were kind to each other. People shared ideas and supplies and food and transportation and equipment; we encouraged each other through tough moments, we played games sitting in great overstuffed chairs with everyone’s feet on the antique tables, we experimented with exotic drinks and shared tips for avoiding deer ticks and played Ping-Pong in the pool cabin while downing shots of Maker’s Mark. One night, a Broadway composer played the piano and sang songs to a sculptor and me—we were sitting high in the rafters of the music room. A video artist smuggled in episodes of Game of Thrones and handed out flash drives to those of us who couldn’t sleep at night. And not one, not two, but three writers offered to introduce me to their agents—which is how I got an agent, and which started everything that happened after.
Yaddo was, well, just perfect. A perfect four weeks in my life.
You set out to write this book after your children were grown and out of the house. Was writing something you’d wanted to pursue, or was this a desire that developed later on? What would you say was your greatest influence throughout this process?
Well, my son had started high school, and my daughter had left for college. It actually felt strange to leave my son at home for a month while I went off to a writer’s retreat, but of course, he was just fine, and he had a lovely time with his dad.
I’m one of those people who has always thought of myself as a writer. Writing is a very natural form of communication for me; I have used it daily all my life. So, yes, I always planned to write a novel—and in fact wrote an earlier one when my children were quite small—and it was more or less just finding the window in my life when I would sit down and do it again. Writing a novel was much in my mind when I was choosing a new career mid-life; I wanted work that would allow me the flexibility to write. (I was, however, a bit naïve about the demands of a community college teaching job!)
My greatest influence? Hmmm. Well, I come from a family of readers, and we like stories, so I think I was influenced by all the ways that stories mattered in the lives of people who mattered to me. My mom instilled in me the idea that a novel was a way to understand the truth of things, that turning to a novel to figure out one’s bearings was simply a practical approach to life’s ups and downs. (A doctor once told her that perhaps she should stop reading for a while, to calm her nerves. It was the books that were to blame, of course—not the six kids . . . )
Why did you choose the quote from the Emily Dickinson poem for the title of this book? How do you feel it captures the essence of the story?
It was chosen in a burst of chaotic energy. I woke up on a Monday morning to an email from my agent saying she was ready to market the book; all she needed was a new title and a bio—in the next couple of hours. Ha ha ha. A new title and a bio that morning? I cranked out a two-line bio that I hoped would make me sound smart and fascinating, and then I grabbed a textbook thinking that I might be able to use a line from a poem. None of the lines I found seemed right, but I sent them off. My agent liked two, and her assistant liked just one, so there we were with “We Are Called to Rise.”
At first, I was worried that We Are Called to Rise sounded a bit sententious, and also, I had trouble remembering it, but I have come to love the title. I think my agent’s assistant intuited how effectively that line expresses the heart of the story; I’m grateful to her for that strong sense. I like Emily Dickinson’s work very much, and I particularly like the thought behind that poem. I hope my story does it justice.
What are you working on now? Are there more novels in the works?
I have been working on another novel. It’s also set in Las Vegas, and it also relies on the strange convergence of people’s lives, but it’s quite different from We Are Called to Rise. I’m working with characters that are far removed from my own experience. This should scare me, but it doesn’t. (They are just words on a screen, and if they turn out badly, I will delete them.) This novel also has a different narrative path. It ends with why the story exists, so the challenge is whether or not I can engage a reader long enough to get there.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is rare for a book to move me to tears; this one did. I could not put it down and I was sad when it ended for I had become attached to the characters, especially sweet and courageous 8 year old Bashkim. This book broke my heart but ultimately healed it and left me hopeful. I will not soon forget the characters or their life stories. Hard to believe that this is the author's first book. I read a lot, about two novels per week, and this is the best book I've read in a long while. Highly recommended.
Loved this book! Told from different characters perspectives and hard to put down.
This was a marvelous book--could not put it down. The circumstances, people and interplay of their lives was compelling. She brought hope out of situations that would seem to be hopeless. This book is a gift!
such a compelling book and cast of unforgettable characters. I would characterize this book as The Kite Runner set in Las Vegas in 2013
I loved the book. How an author can get all the characters right is amazing. I am a better person for having read it.
McBride uses four major characters and their voices to tell this story about Las Vegas and how our lives are interconnected. Although it is fiction, it is easy to feel like this is a story that you would hear from a friend. It tells of a marriage that has fallen apart, the ongoing effects of the Iraq war, PTSD, and domestic violence, and the very hard life of new immigrants/asylees to the United States. But these difficult subjects are tempered with humor and the bright lights that humans can be-- when they choose to go the extra mile, do the right thing, and make a difference. We Are Called to Rise is heart-wrenching, real, and inspirational-- one of the best books I've read in ages.
Great for a book club, many things to discuss.
Highly recommend this book!
Where this book was very different in the layout, it was very good in the telling. But it did lag in a couple of places but still a good read
The writing is beautiful yet the sadness is almost overwhelming so that it may not be for everyone. The characters will live with me for a long time.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it was not something so powerful, moving, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and uplifting. The writing was excellent, and each character truly had its own voice. As the story moved on, the connections between the characters seemed to come together in a realistic fashion. I will remember this book for a long time.
So glad to have stumbled on this excellent, unusual novel. Situations and insights are finely drawn, and the author helps make every one of her complex characters' struggles something with which I could identify. There's much to glean, and the story ends in a satisfying, yet not pandering way. Recommended highly!
Loved how the author made everything connect. Every characters voice was so funny ndividual and compelling.
Wonderfully written. This is a sad story that deals with many types of loss. Well worth the read.
This book was enjoyable, it let me feel like I was peeking into four other people's lives• the ending was great-how everyone tied in together• It would be heartwarming if life was really like that!
This book just wasnt for me. I did manage to read it to the end. But I never could really get into it.