Readers of Fannie Flagg’s novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! will no doubt remember Sookie Poole, loyal college roommate of TV morning show host Dena Nordstrom. Forty years later, the two are still close confidantes, but we learn a lot more about Sookie in Flagg’s welcome new dramedy The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Random House, digital galley). For that matter, Sookie learns a lot more about Sookie, and thereby hangs Flagg’s tale.
Unlike her pal Dena, Sookie Krackenberry Poole of Point Clear, Ala., has always known her people. Sure, she’s the 60-year-old wife of dentist Earle and mother of three girls (all recently wedded) and one son (single). But she’s also the dutiful daughter of 88-year-old, still-going-strong Southern matriarch Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, who is obsessed with her Simmons forebears. Although Sookie has “the Simmons foot,” she has always been a disappointment in the ancestor-venerating department, and Lenore has a hissy fit when Sookie suggests giving all the Simmons family silver to her sister-in-law Bunny. “Who is not even a Simmons — and not even from Alabama?” cries Lenore. “Why don’t you just cut my heart out and throw it in the yard?”
So, of course, Sookie relents and promises not break up the set of Francis I and to be a better daughter and thus a better Simmons. But that’s before the registered letter from Texas arrives in the mail and Sookie discovers she also has ties to another family — the Jurdabralinskis of Pulaski, Wisc., a colorful Polish-Catholic clan.
As Sookie’s world turns topsy-turvy, Flagg shifts the narrative to 1940s Wisconsin, where the Jurdabralinski family run Wink’s Phillips 66. Before the war, eldest daughter Fritzi was a barnstorming pilot, but she’s grounded when her partner is drafted as a flight instructor. Her brother and the garage’s male mechanics also have joined up, so Fritzi and her three sisters pitch in to keep the family business running and turn it into a popular roadside attraction.
But as Sookie discovers, the all-girl filling station is just one chapter in spirited Fritzi’s adventures. She becomes a Fly Girl, a member of the all-female WASPs, who fly transport and support missions for the Air Force during World War II, and two of her sisters follow suit.
Readers may think they know where the story is headed — and they may be right — but this journey to home truths offers delightful detours, from Sookie secretly meeting a psychiatrist at the Waffle House, to Fritzi outflying a condescending male pilot at a Texas airfield. Just as Fritzi’s a pro at barrel rolls, Flagg’s a whiz at loop-de-loops. Hang on, Sookie!