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.