Redbird Christmas (Flagg)

A Redbird Christmas
Fannie Flagg, 2004
Random House
240 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345480262

With the same incomparable style and warm, inviting voice that have made her beloved by millions of readers far and wide, New York Times bestselling author Fannie Flagg has written an enchanting Christmas story of faith and hope for all ages that is sure to become a classic.

Deep in the southernmost part of Alabama, along the banks of a lazy winding river, lies the sleepy little community known as Lost River, a place that time itself seems to have forgotten. After a startling diagnosis from his doctor, Oswald T. Campbell leaves behind the cold and damp of the oncoming Chicago winter to spend what he believes will be his last Christmas in the warm and welcoming town of Lost River.

There he meets the postman who delivers mail by boat, the store owner who nurses a broken heart, the ladies of the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society, who do clandestine good works. And he meets a little redbird named Jack, who is at the center of this tale of a magical Christmas when something so amazing happened that those who witnessed it have never forgotten it. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
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.)

Book Reviews
Lured by a brochure his doctor gives him after informing him that his emphysema has left him with scarcely a year to live, 52-year-old Oswald T. Campbell abandons wintry Chicago for Lost River, Ala., where he believes he'll be spending his last Christmas. Bestselling author Flagg makes this down-home story about good neighbors and the power of love sparkle with wit and humor, as she tells of Oswald's new life in a town with one grocery store and a resident cardinal (or redbird, as the natives call it). Frances Cleverdon, one of four widows and three single women in town, hopes to fix him up with her sister, Mildred—if only Mildred wouldn't keep dying her hair outrageous colors every few days. The quirky story takes a heartwarming turn when Frances and Oswald become involved in the life of Patsy Casey, an abandoned young girl with a crippled leg. As Christmas approaches, the townspeople and neighboring communities-even the Creoles, whose long-standing feud with everybody else keeps them on the other side of the river-rally round shy, sweet Patsy. Flagg is a gifted storyteller who knows how to tug at readers' heartstrings, winding up her satisfying holiday tale with the requisite Christmas miracle.
Publishers Weekly

Flagg's latest work is just the thing this holiday season for anyone who loves warm, cuddly, feel-good books. Much like Jan Karon's popular "Mitford" series, the story takes place in a small town full of interesting characters. But Lost River, AL, is even smaller, and the story is set sometime in the recent past. Oswald T. Campbell leaves snowy Chicago for Lost River either to regain his health or to spend his last few months in peace. Instead, he's welcomed into this tiny community with open arms and discovers not only his health but also love, acceptance, and a whole new life. Along with Oswald's cure are other examples of love's power. Despite some unfortunate stereotypes, Flagg's gentle humor and positive life view should make the book popular. The selected recipes will bring back fond memories for many; expect regional outbreaks of the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots. —Rebecca Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights
Library Journal

One more Christmas, one more chance. Diagnosed with terminal emphysema, Oswald T. Campbell leaves wintry Chicago for a friendly little town in Alabama recommended by his doctor. Lost River seems as good a place as any to spend his last Christmas on earth; and Oswald, a cheerful loser all his life, believes in going with the flow. Turns out that the people of Lost River are a colorful bunch: Roy Grimmit, the strapping owner of the grocery/bait/beer store, hand-feeds a rescued fledgling named Jack (the redbird of the title) and doesn't care who thinks he's a sissy. Many of the local women belong to the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots, which does good things on the sly, like fixing up unattached men. Betty Kitchen, former army nurse, coaxes Oswald's life story out of him. Seems he was an orphan named for a can of soup—could there be anything sadder? Oswald is quite taken with the charms of Frances Cleverdon, who has a fabulous collection of gravy boats and a pink kitchen, too. Back to Jack, the redbird: it's a favorite of Patsy, a crippled little girl abandoned by her worthless parents. She'll be heartbroken when she finds out that Jack died, so the townsfolk arrange for a minor miracle. Will they get it? Yes—and snow for Christmas, too. Charming tale, sweet as pie, with a just-right touch of tartness from the bestselling Flagg.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Redbird Christmas:

1. Describe Oswald Campbell at the beginning of the story. How did he come by his name...and how might his naming incident be symbolic of the life he has led (so far)?

2. Fannie Flagg seems to be having fun with names in this novel: not just Oswald's name, but also the name of Lost River. In what way do many of its residents fit the name of the town? What have some of them lost...or missed out on...?

3. Who are your favorites among the cast of characters and why—Betty Kitchen, Roy Grimmitt, Frances Cleverdon, Claude Underwood, Mildred, Dottie ...? (Exclude Jack or Patsy; we'll get to them next.)

4. Jack, the you love him? How does he "serve" the community? In what way does he foreshadow what happens to both Patsy and Oswald?

5. Talk about Patsy and her plight. Why is she so drawn to Jack? And why is Lost River so drawn to her?

6. Healing is a central motif in this novel. Who gets healed in this book—and it what ways? And, more importantly, what enables healing to occur? What is Flagg suggesting about the power of community?

7. Can you relate the sense of community in A Redbird Christmas to where you live? What are the attractions, or drawbacks, of a tightly-knit group of people? What other types of community are there? In other words, what do we mean by "community"... what makes a community?

8. Why is this book and its title centered around the Christmas holiday?

9. Talk about the ways in which this book might be considered a fable, as well as a novel?

10. Do you find this book satisfying—is it what you hoped for? Is it too sweet, or saccharine, for your taste? Or is it just right—its sweetness cut by Fannie Flagg's wit? If you've read other works by Flagg, how does this one compare?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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