Do you know who you are? Do you like who you are? This story begins with a mother, Sookie, who has just organized her last daughter’s wedding and looks forward, exhausted, to sleeping for a year- but at the same time, is vaguely dissatisfied with her life’s accomplishments. She is the sort of lovable, odd and funny character I expected from the author, Fannie Flagg, who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe
In a reversal, she discovers – at the age of 60- that she is not the daughter of her mother, is not from the kind of ethnic or class background she has imagined all her life. Her life then intersects with her birth family’s life, which we read about in a generation earlier. It seems to me that we try to see the story of our lives as a coherent whole, preferably under our control and with a sense of accomplishment, and yet, so much is accidental or doesn’t fit. My own mother-in-law discovered in her 60s that she was half Jewish, and took a while to get used to the idea; her father had been an orphan sent out from the east coast, probably on an “orphan train“, to help families settling the west. He, and therefore my mother-in-law too, lost much of what was his real background and heritage.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”In her TED talk, Adichie discusses how “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.”
Sookie’s birth mother seemed to have accomplished so much in her life. She was one of a small number of women pilots who served in WWII, WASPS, flying planes from the sites of manufacture to the airfields where they were needed. I know a member of of my church in England who did this very thing in England- yet looks like an ordinary older lady like the rest of us. Their role in the war, though demanding and dangerous, was never well known, and I had been unaware of it. As I read of their struggle to be taken seriously , in spite of their expertise, I thought of Sally Ride, and other female astronauts, about whom I was reading recently because of my little granddaughter’s interest. And Sally Ride made a cameo appearance in this novel!
Those war years were, for many who lived through them, a time when they felt a great sense of doing something worthwhile and of belonging to a community who were “all in it together.” My father certainly expressed this about his RAF days, and did not find the same in post-war life. It would be sad if war were the only activity that could give us this sense of the importance of individual’s contributions and the community in which we live our lives.
Do you find you look at someone you know a little and assume that the possibly limited activity you are aware of is the total of that person’s life? I have to admit I have done, and have then been humbled to discover a life of adventure or sacrifice or intellectual accomplishment or quiet devotion to others’ needs of which I was unaware. All of us little old ladies with grey hair look the same, you know…
So this novel shows the interplay between the two stories, mother and daughter, and the essential similarity of character, yet complexity of character, in two very different settings, reminding us that a person is always more than a simplified narrative, and that value does not depend on adventure or danger alone.