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Onyx reviews: The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/18/2014

Where does a person's identity come from? How intimately connected is it to the family a person is born into, the story of the person's life or even how old a person is? And what happens when some of these details are discovered to be untrue?

This is the situation Sarah Jane (Sookie) Poole finds herself in after a mysterious call from Austin, Texas that promises the delivery of a package by certified mail the following day. Sookie, at 59, has reached the point in her life where most of the responsibilities of motherhood are off her shoulders. All three of her daughters are married and someone else will be responsible for organizing nuptials when her son decides to get married. She and her husband, Earl, are enjoying the empty nest, looking forward to the next phase in life. Her biggest concerns are figuring out a way to keep the blue jays from stealing all the food from the smaller birds at her feeders and keeping an eye on her mother, Lenore, who is in her late eighties.

Lenore Simmons Krackenberry has what one might politely call a strong personality. She is a force of nature and a proud member of the Simmons clan. Her family secretly refers to her as Winged Victory because of her vague resemblance to a car's hood ornament. All her life, Sookie has been browbeat into doing things expected of her because she is also a Simmons, and the legacy passes on to her children. At nearly 90, though, Lenore is a handful. Sookie has all of her mother's mail redirected to her house so she can keep close tabs on Lenore, who has a tendency to order things from late-night television and to get into letter-writing tiffs in the local paper, one instance of which led to her being sued.

The Simmons's and Pooles live in Point Clear, Alabama, where everyone knows everyone else's business and gossip runs rampant. Unnerved by the possibilities represented by the mysterious package from Austin, Sookie acts strangely for a day or two, leading her neighbors to believe that she has fallen victim to the Simmons propensity for mental illness. She has good reason to be nervous: the package, when she finally decides to accept delivery of it, contains a bombshell that rocks her very foundations. Sookie was adopted from a Polish mother in Wisconsin (father unknown). Not only is she not a Simmons, she's a year older than she thought she was. Suddenly she's 60, with no time to prepare for it.

The revelation throws Sookie for a loop and causes a crisis of identity. Her stalwart and doting husband supports her through her various meltdowns. She avoids her mother for days and decides not to raise the subject with her. What good would it do this late in life?

In parallel with Sookie's story, Flagg recounts the tale of the Jurdabralinskis, who live in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the 1930s. The family business is a Phillips 66 gas station. After Pearl Harbour, when all the young men join the military and the Jurdabralinski patriarch falls ill with tuberculosis, the four daughters decide to keep the station going as long as possible. They are led by Fritzi, who the documents say is Sookie's real mother, twin sisters Gertrude and Tula, and youngest (and most beautiful), Sophie. Before the war, Fritzi had joined a flying circus as a wing walker and stunt pilot. She is brash and direct, with all the qualities necessary to keep the station open. When people find out about the four beautiful mechanics, they come from as far away as Canada to get gas or to have their cars serviced.

Eventually, though, rationing and a decreased demand for gas forces the girls to close up. Fritzi joins a new program called WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Since male pilots are needed to fight overseas, women pilots are conscripted to ferry aircraft from factories to airbases around the country. They aren't exactly military, but they are doing a huge part for the war effort and many of them sacrifice their lives for this mission. Two of Fritzi's sisters ultimately join the WASPs. They receive little recognition, work in demanding conditions, but they get to crisscross the country and are the first people to fly some of the newest aircraft.

The two stories are interwoven with skill and grace. The two biggest mysteries are: how does Sookie end up being born under these circumstances at the end of the war, and what does she do about it 60 years later? Should she try to track down her birth mother? Would the former flier want to hear from the daughter she gave up, apparently without a second thought. Most importantly, though, as Sookie learns more about her birth family, what does she do with all this new information. Is she Polish? Is she Catholic? Has she been living a lie?

Flagg's novel is a heart-warming and often funny look at a late-life crisis and an exploration of a little-known group of women whose contribution to the war effort was overlooked and denied for decades after the conflict ended.

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