The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary and Sewing Circle
Lois Battle's newest novel is about women whose lives change in an instant. For Bonnie Cullman, the change comes when her husband reveals that he has squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that he is leaving her without a dime. For Ruth and Hilly and the rest of their coworkers, the change comes when they learn that Cherished Lady, the company they work for, is moving to Mexico and leaving them without a paycheck. In terms of circumstances, living style, and expectations, you couldn't find a bigger difference between Bonnie and the workers laid off from Cherished Lady. But they have more in common than it appears. They have resilience, strength, and principles. They have the ability to see beyond the limitations of their present lives. And they have the power to help themselves and each other.
When Bonnie Duke Cullman learns from her husband that she has lost him, her money, and her home, her initial reactions are shock and fear about what her next step will be. She knows she needs to get a job, but her employment experience is minimal, and her qualifications as loving mother, dutiful wife, and accomplished socialite don't look very impressive on a résumé. As it turns out, the only job she can find requires that she relocate to a small town in Alabama near the Florida bordercalled Florabama. Bonnie's journey from upper-crust to middle-class is a series of alarming wake-up calls that remind her how ill-prepared she was for life on her own. But it also provides pleasant surprises. She becomes reacquainted with old friends and an old flame. She finds a small house, slightly more graceful than shabby, that she proudly fixes up. And even though her job turns out to be nothing at all like she imagined, and her office has all the charm of a utility closet, Bonnie teaches herself the computer, learns the ins and outs of public funding, and becomes acquainted with all sorts of people she would never have met in her former life, and who end up enriching her present one.
The women Bonnie advises in her job are used to doing without. They live by their wits when their paychecks aren't enough, fetch pots and pans when the roof leaks, and take up the slack when less dependable members of their families bail out. If life is a bowl of cherries, these women make do with the pits. We first meet them as a mass of shell-shocked newly unemployed workers expressing their fear and anger to a television camera. But gradually we learn more about these remarkable women than the local news could ever reveal. That Bible-thumping Celia has a wild streak. That Albertine is a computer whiz. Tough, outspoken Hilly has a loving and loyal heart. And Ruth, who has trouble speaking in public, has a wondrous gift for poetry. Unlike Bonnie, the Florabama ladies are accustomed to adapting to all kinds of change, to making do and doing without. But what may seem like a final, insurmountable blow turns into a series of blessings that take them places they never would have attempted to reach. What do the Florabama ladies teach each other? A lot, it turns out. Bonnie's privileged background has given her a sense of opportunity that she passes on to the others: Why not get a college education? Why not learn a new skill? Why not go into business? Without realizing it, Bonnie introduces them to a world that values their skills and rewards their industry. In return Bonnie learns that downsizing isn't always a bad thing. Why spend a fortune at the salons and dress shops when you look just as good in a ponytail and a pair of faded jeans? Who needs an enormous house when the sun shines just as brightly through the windows of a small one? Why make vapid small talk over cocktails when you can kick back with a beer and some barbecue?
Chances are that none of the characters in The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary & Sewing Circle would have learned these valuable lessons had their worlds not changed overnight. The walls of a shaky house crumble in an instant; but the destruction offers opportunities for rebuilding bigger, better, and sounder than before. This kind of rebuilding doesn't happen all at once. It takes weeks and months, periods of despair, and leaps of faith into unknown territory. The process of starting your life over is difficult, but it reveals a simple truth: the lessons that can't be learned in a day are the ones that last a lifetime.
Lois Battle's seven novels include Bed and Breakfast, Storyville, War Brides, and A Habit of the Blood (all Penguin). She lives in Beaufort, South Carolina.
At one point in the novel, Bonnie reprimands herself: "She shouldn't and couldn't blame Devoe. She was responsible. She'd brought herself to this. By not being prepared, by not being brave enough to test herself in the workplace, by not having the sense to protect herself financially." Are these factors that every woman should consider? Do you think Bonnie's situation is a common one?
I understand the confusing pushes and pulls women feel about being financially responsible for themselves. Bonnie's situation is a common one, especially for women of a certain age. Her husband, Devoe, has betrayed her trust and left her in the lurch financially. But the harsh reality is that blaming him isn't going to help her. The fact that she is willing to take personal responsibility at least puts her on the right track to independence.
When I was growing up, my parents always taught me to assume moral responsibility, but because of the time in which they lived, they gave me a mixed message about financial independence. While they wanted me to have an education, they talked about my earning ability as "something to fall back on"the assumption being that I would marry, and that my husband would provide for me. It didn't work out that way. Certainly, my personal choice to be in the arts meant that I didn't have a reliable income until I was well into middle age. Nevertheless, I hope that parents, especially mothers, now prepare their daughters to be self-supporting. It's still tough for women to be self-supporting, but assuming that responsibility seems to me to be a well-spring of independence and strength.
Bonnie's father speaks of divorce as a "disabling" experience. Do you think it's more disabling for women than for men?
At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy says, "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So, every divorce is unhappy in its own way, and there are instances in which the husband is the injured party, but, in general, I think that women find divorce more disabling. Even if a woman has an independent spirit, her social identity is more likely to be bound up in her husband's identityafter the divorce he's still Mr. Jones, but she's no longer Mrs. Jones, so who is she? She's much more likely to be dependent on his financial support. If children are involved she's more likely to get custody. Dads may flee the coop; Mamas are still responsible. The dating poolin terms of age, education, and economicsis invariably larger for divorced men. Men still have the social prerogative of asking a woman to go out. Hostesses always seem to be looking for an "extra" man but may be reluctant to include an unattached woman. On the up-side, women can turn to their women friends for networking, comfort, and emotional support.
There is a lovely passage near the end of the novel, when Ruth sits on her front steps: "Looking up at the full moon and the starry skies, she gave way to the wonder of it. It was a mystery. She wasn't just an unemployed, middle-aged grandmother in a small Alabama town. She was a conscious part of God's universe. Anything was possible." What does being a "conscious part of God's universe" mean to you? How does this consciousness lead to the powerful feeling that anything is possible?
So often people, especially women, are so weighed down by family responsibilities that they don't have the time to think of themselves as individuals in a larger contextor they just get out of the habit. Ruth's ability to think of herself as a unique part of God's universe gives her a sense of worth and importance, in a spiritual rather than egotistical way. Being part of something larger than oneself is always an expansive and healing experience. Ruth finds strength and community in religion and, though Hilly is not a believer, her life is immeasurably improved by reaching outside of herself, loving and caring for others.
Bonnie's move from Atlanta to the small town of Florabama takes her to a world that is vastly different from her own. But besides their respective sizes, how do these two communities differ from each other? People who are not from the South tend to think the area is the same throughout, rather than as a cluster of distinct cultures and landscapes. Can you comment on the differences among various parts of the South, and how a woman like Bonnie might find herself more at home in certain communities than others?
When I first drove across the country some forty years ago, regional differences were much more pronounced: the food, customs, and common language varied greatly between, say, Alabama and Connecticut. Now, super highways, television, and chain stores have homogenized the entire country. Most cities in the South have international business investment, an arts community, and ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. Smaller towns tend to be slower, more rooted in the past. "Leading" families still dominate local politics. Gossip and knowing your neighbor's business still prevail. People are still dependent on their religious congregation to provide support and even entertainment. People still hunt and fish and, in the coastal communities, go shrimping and crabbing.
Bonnie is certainly more cosmopolitan than the women from the factoryshe's better educated, she's traveled to other cities and countries, she knows about gourmet cuisine, arts organizations, etc.
More than just a geographical relocation, Bonnie's journey is a cultural one as well, taking her from the "Old South" to the "New South." How would you describe the differences between these two cultures?
This is fundamentally an economic/class difference. The "New South" is the one of international commerce and super highwaysdon't forget that CNN was founded and is based in Atlanta. The "Old South" is more rural, more rooted in "family values" and religion.
I live in Beaufort, a small town with an important history. Beaufort is the second oldest town in South Carolina (after Charleston). The first slaves liberated by the Union Army lived on nearby offshore islands where the finest cotton (Sea Island cotton) was produced. The first school for liberated slaves was established at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, about twenty minutes from my home. In part because they were separated from the mainland, African Americans from the offshore islands have a unique Gullah culture. What's called the Lowcountry is very physically beautifulwaterways, marshes, live oaks, and spanish moss.
During the last twenty years or so there's been a large influx of people from the Northmostly retirees seeking a milder climate. There has been phenomenal growth, often in "gated communities."
What did your "former life" as an actress teach you about writing, telling stories, and creating characters?
I was a professional actress and sometime director well into my early forties. I believe that my acting experience has been extremely valuable to me as a writer. It has given me an ear for dialogueI can "hear" my characters talking. Perhaps more importantly, I learned how to suspend my own moral judgement and enter into the emotional life of any character I was playing. In general, no one says, "I'm evil, or silly, or egotistical"instead, he or she thinks in terms of feelings and objectives; what do I want? how can I get it? When being interviewed about my book Storyville I was asked about my attitudes towards prostitution. Some friends teased me because I said, "I'm a novelist not a moralist." By that I meant that even though I have attitudes, standards, and morals, when I create a character I try to suspend my individual bias and beliefs and enter into his or her life. One of the joys of reading is to be able to enter, wholeheartedly, into the experience of another person. Even if you find that person reprehensible, you're stimulated into understanding him or her.
Your novel leaves us curious about so many aspects of Bonnie's life: what her next career move will be, how her relationship with Riz will play out, and if she will embark on a new romance with Scott Mallory. Is there a sequel in the making?
I've never written a sequel, which means that my mental landscape is pretty crowded with a host of characters. Because my characters are real to me, they're like friends (or enemies) so of course I imagine what their future might bealways allowing for chance and circumstance, some twist of fate or history that may alter or disrupt their lives.
In a sense, it doesn't matter exactly what Bonnie does next. The point is that she's now more equipped to make a choice and to follow through with it. Her affair with Riz has broadened her experience and made her feel more confident. Her job at the college, her relationships with other women, and the trials of living alone have given her a greater sense of her abilities. She is certainly open and emotionally prepared to have a relationship with Scott Mallory. Her growing belief that she is capable of coping with new situations is far more important than the situations themselves.
If your readers learn only one thing through this novel, what would you want that lesson to be?
Once again, I'm a novelist not a moralist. I would never presume to "teach" my readers. I assume (in fact, I know from having met many of them) that they're intelligent and experienced. What I hope to do is to entertain and stimulate them by presenting real characters in crisis situations that they can relate to. The closest thing to a "lesson" would be that both friendship and education are not only necessary but wonderful. And yes, laughter is good.
- How do Battle's characters and their stories reflect current issues and trends in the South, and in America in general?
- Compare Bonnie and Ruth. Even though they come from such diverse backgrounds, how are their situations similar?
- Compare the leading men in Bonnie's life: the Duke, Riz, and Devoe. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How does each represent the typical "Southern" gentleman? How, if at all, does each represent the typical "modern" man?
- What role does money play in this novel? Is it always a good thing to have? What are the ramifications of having too much? What are the benefits of not always having enough?
- In the beginning of the novel, Bonnie looks back on her marriage to Devoe, before his bankruptcy and their divorce, and observes that she had lead a "charmed life." Do you think a year later she would make that same observation?
- On page 7, Mrs. Patel, the hotel owner, says, "Sometimes when we are in difficulty, old habits of the mind are the worst obstacles." What does she mean by "old habits of the mind?" How does this piece of wisdom apply to Bonnie? To the women she advises?
- The first night in her new house, Bonnie writes in a journal that she feels "stripped." She is reminded of what she felt as an adolescent, "as though her adult life had been no more than an interim, and now she'd come back to her reflective, questioning, self-conscious nature, worried about who she was, her place in the world, what the future would hold." These are scary feelings for a normally self-confident woman. Have you ever had these feelings? What kinds of incidents prompted them?
- What elements of the novelcharacters, events, settingare uniquely Southern? Could this story have taken place anywhere else in the country?
- How has Battle's depiction of the modern South changed your own perceptions about that part of the country?
- What do you think of Bonnie's relationship with Riz? Besides a new mattress, what does he offer her? Is he better for her than Devoe? What will become of their relationship?
- Many of the characters in this novel have faced enormous losses and overwhelming adversityand ended up better off than they were before. Can you think of situations where disasters turned into triumphs? How can we apply the lessons these characters learned to our own daily lives?