The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion
Mrs. Sookie Poole should be entering her “golden years” with her husband, Earle. The Point Clear, Alabama housewife has just married off the last of the three daughters, and although her son Carter is still single, that wedding will be some other mother’s problem. The only sticking point is (and always has been) her formidable mother, Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, an irascible, overbearing 88-year-old who is fond of lording her proud ancestry over anyone who will listen. Sookie, ever the patient daughter, has lived in her mother’s foreboding shadow her entire life. The biggest worry in the Simmons family is the propensity they have to lose their marbles at a certain age and end up at Pleasant Hill Sanitarium (like her Aunt Lily and Uncle Baby: “When a fifty-eight-year-old man goes downtown dressed up in a Dale Evans cowgirl outfit, complete with a skirt with fringe, it’s time.”)
"With her usual deftness, Fannie Flagg combines big-hearted storytelling with comical mystery elements for a charming story of unexpected family. Her characters fully inhabit the page, to the point where you can almost smell their sweet jasmine perfume."
The always dramatic Lenore, with her pronounced hair flip and flowing scarves, earned the nickname “Winged Victory” from her son and Sookie’s brother, Buck, who remarked on their mother’s likeness to a hood ornament. You try standing out with a mother like that. But standing out was never Sookie’s style. She was content just being herself, happily married to Earle, the local dentist, who loved her since they were teenagers, and being a doting mother to her four children. As they grew up, got married and left the nest, Sookie anticipated things settling down and spending more time with her hard-working husband, maybe even taking a cruise. But as the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” Everything changes with one registered letter from the Texas Board of Health. Sookie’s world is altered in an instant.
With this letter, a secret is revealed about Sookie’s parentage and her mother’s past, and she embarks on a search that will take her back in time, to the Wisconsin and Texas of the 1940s. On her journey, she learns of her connection to a freethinking, independent woman named Fritzi Jurdabralinski, a trained airplane stunt pilot who returned to her family’s Wisconsin home during the roughest years of World War II to help run the family’s filling station. At that time, with all the men at war, it was up to the women in the family to step up, and the family’s Phillips 66 became the All-Girl Filling Station, where the women of the Jurdabralinksi family all had their roles to help out while their brother Wink was off at war and their father recovered from his lung ailment.
As the war raged on and gas prices became astronomical, the station was forced to close. Without their family vocation, Fritzi decided to return to her first love --- flying --- a vocation she learned at the feet of the master, her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Bill Bevins, stunt pilot extraordinaire who, despite an impressive drinking prowess, had been recruited by the Army to train pilots in Pensacola. Through Fritzi’s adventures, we learn about a little-known aspect of the war effort: there were women called WASPs who were trained and flew planes. She leaves Wisconsin and heads for Sweetwater, Texas, where she trains at the local air base along with other women, learning to pilot planes for the war effort. Eventually, her sisters, also licensed pilots, join her there.
The story alternates between Sookie’s modern-day discovery and acceptance of what she’s learned and Fritzi’s rollicking adventures and heartaches during World War II. With her usual deftness, Fannie Flagg combines big-hearted storytelling with comical mystery elements for a charming story of unexpected family. Her characters fully inhabit the page, to the point where you can almost smell their sweet jasmine perfume. As a reader, you feel you know these people. As in many of her novels, familiar names crop up (Dena Nordstrom, the lead character in WELCOME TO THE WORLD, BABY GIRL! is Sookie’s college friend and trusted ally with whom she consults often via phone), and the setting of southern Alabama is as comfortable as a well-worn leather chair. This latest offering from Flagg is just as easy to slip into and lose yourself.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on November 8, 2013