The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion
Fannie Flagg, 2013
A new comic mystery novel about two women who are forced to reimagine who they are and what they are capable of.
Mrs. Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, has just married off the last of her three daughters and is looking forward to relaxing and perhaps traveling with her husband, Earle. The only thing left to contend with now is her mother, the formidable and imposing Lenore Simmons Krackenberry—never an easy task. Lenore may be a lot of fun for other people, but is, for the most part, an overbearing presence for her daughter. Then one day, quite by accident, Sookie discovers a shocking secret about her mother’s past that knocks her for a loop and suddenly calls into question everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her family, and her future.
Feeling like a stranger in her own life, and fearful of confronting her mother with questions, Sookie begins a search for answers that takes her to California, the Midwest, and back in time, to the 1940s, when an irrepressible woman named Fritzi takes on the job of running her family’s filling station. With so many men off to war, it’s up to Fritzi and her enterprising younger sisters to keep it going. Soon truck drivers are changing their routes to fill up at the All-Girl Filling Station. But before long, Fritzi sees an opportunity for an even more groundbreaking adventure when she receives a life-changing invitation from the U.S. military to assist in the war effort. As Sookie learns more and more about Fritzi’s story, she finds herself with new answers to the questions she’s been asking her whole life.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is a perfect combination of comedy, mystery, wisdom, and charm. Fabulous, fun-loving, spanning decades, generations, and centered on a little-known aspect of America’s twentieth-century story, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is Fannie Flagg, the bestselling "born storyteller" (New York Times Book Review), at her irresistible best. (From the publisher.)
• Real Name—Patricia Neal
• Birth—September 21, 1944
• Where—Birmingham, Alabama, USA
• Education—University of Alabama
• Currently—lives in Montecito, California
Fannie Flagg began writing and producing television specials at age nineteen and went on to distinguish herself as an actress and writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (which was produced by Universal Pictures as Fried Green Tomatoes), Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow, and A Redbird Christmas. Flagg’s script for Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for both the Academy and Writers Guild of America awards and won the highly regarded Scripters Award. Flagg lives in California and in Alabama.
Before her career as a novelist, Flagg was known principally for her on-screen television and film work. She was second banana to Allen Funt on the long-running Candid Camera, perhaps the trailblazer for the current crop of so-called reality television. (Her favorite segment, she told Entertainment Weekly in 1992, was driving a car through the wall of a drive-thru bank.) She appeared as the school nurse in the 1978 film version of Grease, and on Broadway in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And she was a staple of the Match Game television game shows in the '70s.
Quite early on in her writing career, Fannie Flagg stumbled onto the holy grail of secrets in the publishing world: what editors are actually good for.
Attending the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference in 1978 to see her idol, Eudora Welty, Flagg won first prize in the writing contest for a short story told from the perspective of a 11-year-old girl, spelling mistakes and all—a literary device that she figured was ingenious because it disguised her own pitiful spelling, later determined to be an outgrowth of dyslexia. But when a Harper & Row editor approached her about expanding the story into a full-length novel, she realized the jig was up. In 1994 she told the New York Times:
I just burst into tears and said, "I can't write a novel. I can't spell. I can't diagram a sentence." He took my hand and said the most wonderful thing I've ever heard. He said, "Oh, honey, what do you think editors are for?"
And so Fannie Flagg—television personality, Broadway star, film actress and six-time Miss Alabama contestant—became a novelist, delving into the Southern-fried, small-town fiction of the sort populated by colorful characters with homespun, no-nonsense observations. Characters that are known to say things like, "That catfish was so big the photograph alone weighed 40 pounds."
Her first novel, an expanded take on that prize-winning short story, was Coming Attractions: A Wonderful Novel, the story of a spunky yet hapless girl growing up in the South, helping her alcoholic father run the local bijou. But it was with her second novel where it all came together. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—a novel, for all its light humor, that infuses its story with serious threads on racism, feminism, spousal abuse and hints at Sapphic love -- follows two pairs of women: a couple running a hometown café in the Depression-era South and an elderly nursing home resident in the late 1980s who strikes up an impromptu friendship with a middle-aged housewife unhappy with her life.
The result was not only a smash novel, but a hit movie as well, one that garnered Flagg an Academy Award nomination for adapting the screenplay. She won praise from the likes of Erma Bombeck, Harper Lee and idol Eudora Welty, and the Los Angeles Times critic compared it to The Last Picture Show. The New York Times called it, simply, "a real novel and a good one."
As a writer, though, this Birmingham, Alabama native found her voice as a chronicler of Southern Americana and life in its self-contained hamlets. "Fannie Flagg is the most shamelessly sentimental writer in America," The Christian Science Monitor wrote in a 1998 review of her third novel. "She's also the most entertaining. You'd have to be a stone to read Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! without laughing and crying. The cliches in this novel are deep-fat fried: not particularly nutritious, but entirely delicious."
The New York Times, also reviewing Baby Girl, took note of the spinning-yarns-on-the-front-porch quality to her work: "Even when she prattles—and she prattles a great deal during this book—you are always aware that a star is at work. She has that gift that certain people from the theater have, of never boring the audience. She keeps it simple, she keeps it bright, she keeps it moving right along—and, most of all, she keeps it beloved."
But, lest she be pegged as simply a champion of the good ol’ days, it's worth noting that her writing can be something of a clarion call for social change. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Flagg comments not only on the racial divisions of the South but also on the minimization of women in both the 1930s and contemporary life. Just as Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison commit to a life together—without menfolk—in the Depression-era days of Whistle Stop, Alabama, middle-aged Evelyn Couch in modern-day Birmingham discovers the joys of working outside the home and defining her life outside meeting the every whim of her husband.
On top of her writing, Flagg has also stumped for the Equal Rights Amendment.
I think it's time that women have to stand up and say we do not want to be seen in a demeaning manner," Flagg told a Premiere magazine reporter in an interview about the film adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes.
• Flagg approximated the length of her first novel by weight. Her editor told her a novel should be around 400 pages. "So I weighed 400 pages and it came to two pounds and something," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1987." I wrote until I had two pounds and something, and, as it happened, the novel was just about done."
• She landed the Candid Camera gig while a writer at a New York comedy club. When one of the performers couldn't go on, Flagg acted as understudy, and the show's host, Allen Funt, was in the audience.
• Flagg went undiagnosed for years as a dyslexic until a viewer casually mentioned it to her in a fan letter. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
Structured much like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Flagg's latest novel alternates between the pedestrian life of Sookie Poole, a timid middle-aged southern woman and that of her brash, adventurous ancestry, a quartet of Polish sisters who ran a filling station and flew planes during WWII.... Readers looking for nuance will not find it here, but there are plot twists, adventure, heartbreak, and familial love in spades, making this the kind of story that keeps readers turning pages in a fever.
Alabama sweetheart Sookie Poole has been a loving wife, a caring mother, and, most important, a patient daughter.... [But now] Sookie is inspired to reexamine her own life.... [F]ull of heartwarming charm that is sure to provoke lighthearted laughter. A complex story told simply and honestly, this is an easy read and another treat for Flagg fans. —Shannon Marie Robinson, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Flagg highlights a little-known group in U.S. history...in an appealing story about two women who gather their courage, spread their wings and learn, each in her own way, to fly.... This is a charming story written with wit and empathy. The author forms a comfortable bond with readers and offers just the right blend of history and fiction. Flagg flies high, and her fans will enjoy the ride.
1. A lot of Southern identity is wrapped up in one’s family history. “Now, just who are your people?” is an oft-quoted phrase around the region. Sookie’s biggest crisis comes when she realizes that her “people” aren’t actually who she thought they were. How does Sookie’s discovery of her true family affect her identity? How does your own heritage affect your identity?
2. Though Sookie tells us that Lenore’s nickname, “Winged Victory,” came from the way she entered a room—as if she were the statuesque piece on the hood of a car rushing in—how might “Winged Victory” reflect Lenore’s personality in other ways? Does her representation as a classical goddess serve to heighten the air of history and tradition that surrounds her? How might the image of a winged woman tie Lenore in with the ladies of the WASPs?
3. Though Sookie tells us that Lenore’s nickname, “Winged Victory,” came from the way she entered a room—as if she were the statuesque piece on the hood of a car rushing in—how might “Winged Victory” reflect Lenore’s personality in other ways? Does her representation as a classical goddess serve to heighten the air of history and tradition that surrounds her? How might the image of a winged woman tie Lenore in with the ladies of the WASPs?
4. Sookie’s best friend, Marvaleen, is constantly trying different suggestions from her life coach, Edna Yorba Zorbra. From journaling to yoga to the Goddess Within group, which meets in a yurt, Marvaleen tries every method possible to get over her divorce. How does Sookie’s approach to dealing with her problems differ from Marvaleen’s? Do you think her friendship with Marvaleen might have helped push her to confront the question of her mother?
5. In The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, we learn about a mostly unknown part of American history—the WASPs of World War II. These women went for thirty-five years without recognition because their records of service were sealed and classified. Were you surprised to learn about this? What parts of the WASPs’ story spoke to you?
6. As Sookie comes to terms with her new identity, so must the rest of her family. Sookie’s realization that “Dee Dee may not be a Simmons by birth, but she was certainly Lenore’s granddaughter, all right” becomes a comforting thought. Have there been times in your life when you have felt so connected to people that you considered them family? What types of circumstances can create such a bond?
7. Sookie tells her friend one day, “I’m telling you, Dena, when you live long enough to see your children begin to look at you with different eyes, and you can look at them not as your children, but as people, it’s worth getting older with all the creaks and wrinkles.” Have you experienced this change yet with your own parents or children? If so, what were the circumstances in which you began to see them in a different light? How did this make your relationship even more special?
8. “Blue Jay Away,” Sookie’s brand-new invention, keeps Sookie’s house finches and chickadees fed, while also making Sookie famous. Who do you think have been the blue jays in Sookie’s own life? Has she learned to manage them successfully?
9. As Pat Conroy says, Fannie Flagg can make even the Polish seem Southern. A large part of Southern and Polish identity is found in their culture—the food, the music, the values. What are some of the things that are unique to your culture? How do they help bring people together?
10. Throughout the book, Dee Dee and Lenore often represent many characteristics that Sookie finds frustrating about being a Simmons, such as the time Dee Dee had to be driven to the church in the back of a moving van so that her Gone with the Wind wedding dress wouldn’t be messed up. Once Sookie gains perspective on her family, however, she comes to love and accept Dee Dee’s obsession with their history. Have there been times when your own friends or family have frustrated you with their opinions? How were you able to gain perspective and accept their differences?
11. A major theme in this book is accepting your home. Sookie experiences a homecoming many times—after she first meets Fritzi and returns to Point Clear, when she goes to Lenore’s bedside at Westminster Village, and when she flies to Pulaski for the All-Girl Filling Station’s last reunion. What is your favorite part about going home? Who are the people who make home a home for you?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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