” All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
-Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Much as I love, respect and admire Oscar Wilde, he got things a little bit backwards when it comes to the main character of Fannie Flagg’s latest novel, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. As the book opens, the tragedy of Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr. (better known as Sookie) isn’t how closely she resembles her mother, but rather, how she does not. The formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry (secretly and aptly nicknamed the Winged Victory by her children) is and always has been considerably larger than life, constantly overshadowing her quieter daughter. Among her many other delightful eccentricities, Lenore, now 88 years old, has recently been calling notable strangers long distance: inviting Barbara Bush for tea, and refusing to pay the bill for over $300 that came from her abortive attempt to telephone the Pope, because she spent the entire time on hold, so it shouldn’t count. Naturally, her daughter is left to pick up the pieces, to soothe hurt feelings and ward off potential lawsuits.
Because family history is so important to Lenore, Sookie has been told her entire life exactly who she is and where she comes from, that she has the Simmons foot, and that when she inherits the family silver, she must polish it every day and never, under any circumstances, break up the set. She’s comfortable in her own skin and reasonably secure in her identity, if exhausted from just having married off all three of her daughters (one twice!), and relieved to know that even when her son, Carter, gets married, she will never have to be the mother of the bride again.
Then on Monday, June 6, 2005, Sookie receives a phone call out of the blue, which leads to an even more mysterious package that throws everything she thought she knew about herself out the window, turning her entire world and self-image completely topsy-turvy. After a few days of bed-ridden hysterics (and who can blame her!) , she then sets out to discover her own past, which puts her on the trail of Fritzi Jurdabralinski of Pulaski, Wisconsin and the All-Girls Filling Station. In the process, she learns that she is the product of not one, but several remarkable women.
From this point forward, it becomes a novel of both revelation and re-evaluation, working forward and backwards at the same time to piece together Sookie’s true origins. It’s easy to understand her distress at finding out that her entire past was based on a lie, especially considering how much her mother emphasized their shared heritage. And yet, she doesn’t lose anything in the process, except in receiving tacit permission to slough off any parts of her identity that simply didn’t fit. Instead, she gains a great deal, finally allowing herself to expand her own horizons in ways she never really thought possible.
As the novel progresses, Flagg deftly peels away the layers of each individual even as she also unveils Sookie’s past. In particular, the relationship between Lenore and Sookie is considerably more nuanced than it would seem from the opening pages. Despite one’s dramatic behavior and the other’s unfortunate doormat tendencies, there is a real, honest and even tender bond of love between the two women, running deep and strong beneath all the surface conflict. A lot of Lenore’s craziness and pushiness towards her daughter is born of a desire for Sookie to have only the best … and to be her child, in every way possible. Sookie in turn puts up with her mother’s antics and fixes her messes out of love, and a simple acceptance that Lenore will always dance gleefully along and over the line between “delightfully eccentric” and “as batty as hell”.
Despite my deep love for this novel, my emotions about it are deeply conflicted. On the one hand, it inspires so many warm fuzzies that I’m on the verge of explosion – funny, charming, heart-warming in every detail, and full of so much love, even in the most difficult of situations, circumstances and relationships. I found myself both laughing and crying, alternating between the two in rapid succession – which is highly embarrassing in the middle of a coffee shop. There was also a great deal of pride and admiration for the characters – especially the Jurdabralinski girls who contrived to run the titular All-Girl Filling Station to keep the family legacy going during World War II – and three of whom went on to become WASPs.
On the other hand, reading this magnificent book was also an unfortunate reoccurrence of the angry feminist rage I felt while reading The Girls of Atomic City back in April. Same era, same systemic chauvinism, same incredible courage, dedication and grace under pressure. Again, it was a revelation – intellectually, I knew it could have been easy for female pilots of the era, but I didn’t quite appreciate exactly how NOT easy it was, nor did I realize exactly how little credit the WASPs received, especially since the records of them were classified and locked away for thirty-five years. There is a definite sense of pride in all that the WASPs accomplished, and yet that satisfaction is tinged with sadness, knowing in advance that their achievements will be locked away to be forgotten and undervalued.
I picked up The All-Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion on a Saturday evening, intending to kill an hour or so at O’Henry’s after work before putting it away, picking up dinner and going home. Instead, I found myself hooked – absolutely riveted, and completely unable to stop and put it down. I just had to finish it in one sitting, which resulted in a very late dinner that evening. I REGRET NOTHING!
Happy Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivakkuh), everyone!