As children, Rosemary Cooke, her brother Lowell, and sister Fern are so excited by rolling and jumping in the snow that they look like powdered doughnuts. Their mom says they are all completely beside themselves! It’s a happy memory Rosemary has of her childhood. Author Karen Joy Fowler ponders what we really remember about our pasts. How much of our lives are repressed, forgotten, reordered, retold, and sometimes totally changed or even made up? Do you remember your third birthday, the first day of school, or even what happened last Thanksgiving? I have this lovely photograph of my sister and me on the beach in floaters and have no memory of the event. In Rosemary’s family, a traumatic event changes everything. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves explores the meaning of family and the memories that hold it together.
Rosemary starts her story in the middle. It is 1996. She is in college and has not seen her sister Fern for 17 years and her brother Lowell for 10 years. She has no focus in her life and is drifting. You find out she grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and her father is a psychologist who brought his work home with him. Karen Joy Fowler has this gift to capture childhood: Rosemary sees unfairness as a child would. Sibling rivalry is so realistic you start taking sides. Who is the favorite child? Who gets more attention? Who can play the perception game Same/Not Same better? Fern is shown two apples and a tennis ball. Can she pick out which one that is the same and put the red poker chip on it? Rosemary gets a harder choice: Piglet, ducking, horse and bear cub? Is she smarter? Rosemary chatters and loves to talk.
The Cooke Family is part of a science experiment gone wrong. Rosemary’s parents wanted the children to have an extraordinary childhood, but when Fern is taken away, the family collapses. Rosemary is left with her grandparents, but she thinks she has been given away like Fern. Her brother Lowell rebels and becomes an activist and is on the run from the law while Rosemary becomes silent. The memories of what happened to five-year-old Rosemary and her parents on the day Fern was taken away changed the family and tested their humanity.