About the Book:Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner in Plainview, Indiana is home away from home for Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean. Dubbed "The Supremes" by high school pals in the tumultuous 1960s, they’ve weathered life’s storms for over four decades and counseled one another through marriage and children, happiness and the blues.
Now, however, they’re about to face their most challenging year yet. Proud, talented Clarice is struggling to keep up appearances as she deals with her husband’s humiliating infidelities; beautiful Barbara Jean is rocked by the tragic reverberations of a youthful love affair; and fearless Odette is about to embark on the most terrifying battle of her life. With wit, style and sublime talent, Edward Kelsey Moore brings together three devoted allies in a warmhearted novel that celebrates female friendship and second chances.
Read an Excerpt
I woke up hot that morning. Came out of a sound sleep with my face tingling and my nightgown stuck to my body. Third time that week. The clock on the dresser on the other side of the bedroom glowed 4:45, and I could hear the hiss of the air conditioner and feel its breeze across my face. I had set the temperature to sixty before going to sleep. So common sense said that it had to be chilly in the room. Well, common sense and the fact that my husband, James, who lay snoring beside me, was outfitted for winter even though it was mid-July. He slept like a child—a six-foot, bald-headed, middle-aged child—wrapped in a cocoon he had fashioned for himself out of the sheet and blanket I had kicked off during the night. Just the top of his brown head was visible above the floral pattern of the linens. Still, every inch of me was screaming that the room was a hundred degrees.
I lifted my nightgown and let it fall, trying to fan cool air onto my skin. That accomplished nothing. My friend Clarice claimed that meditation and positive thinking eased her path through menopause, and she was forever after me to try it. So I lay still in the predawn darkness and thought cool thoughts. I summoned up an old summer memory of hopping with the kids through the cold water jetting from the clicking yellow sprinkler in our backyard. I pictured the ice that formed every winter on the creek that ran behind Mama and Daddy’s house in Leaning Tree, making it look like it was wrapped up in cellophane.
I thought of my father, Wilbur Jackson. My earliest recollection of him is the delicious chill I got as a little girl whenever Daddy scooped me up in his arms after walking home on winter evenings from the carpentry shop he owned. I recalled how cold radiated from Daddy’s coveralls and the way it felt to run my hands over the frost--coated hair of his beard.
But Daddy’s shop had been gone for ages. The Leaning Tree property, creek and all, had been the domain of various renters for half a decade. And my children were each at least twenty years beyond dancing in the spray of a sprinkler.
No thoughts, at least not the ones I came up with, proved capable of icing down my burning skin. So I cussed Clarice for her bad advice and for making me think of the old days—a certain recipe for sleeplessness—and I decided to head for the kitchen. There was a pitcher of water in the Frigidaire and butter pecan ice cream in the freezer. I figured a treat would set me right.
I sat up in the bed, careful not to wake James. Normally, he was as easygoing a man as you’d ever meet. But if I woke him before dawn on a Sunday, he would look at me sideways all through morning service and right up until dinner. So, in order not to disturb him, I moved in slow motion as I stood, slipped my feet into my house shoes, and made my way to the bedroom door in the dark.
Even though I had made the trip from our bed to the kitchen thousands of times in pitch blackness, what with sick children and countless other nighttime emergencies during the decades of our marriage, and even though not a stick of furniture in our bedroom had been moved in twenty years, I rammed the little toe of my right foot into the corner of our old mahogany dresser not five steps into my journey. I cussed again, out loud this time. I looked over my shoulder to see if I had awakened James, but he was still snoring away in his linen wrappings. Hot and tired, my toe throbbing in my green terrycloth slip-ons, I had to fight the urge to run and wake James and insist that he sit up and suffer along with me. But I was good and continued to creep out of the room.
Other than the faint growl of James snoring three rooms away, the only sound in the kitchen was the bass whoosh made by the lopsided ceiling fan churning above my head. I turned on the kitchen light and looked up at that fan wobbling on its axis. With my toe smarting, and still longing to distribute my bad humor, I decided that even if I couldn’t justify snapping at James about my hot flash or my sore toe, I could surely rationalize letting off some steam by yelling at him for improperly installing that fan eighteen years earlier. But, like my desire to wake him and demand empathy, I successfully fought off this temptation.
I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven, would say, “Now there’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works.”
I grabbed the water pitcher and saw a bowl of grapes sitting next to it looking cool and delicious. I pulled the bowl out with the pitcher and set them on the kitchen table. Then I fetched a glass from the dish drainer and brought it to the table, kicking my house shoes off along the way in order to enjoy the feel of cold linoleum against the soles of my bare feet. I sat down at what had been my place at the table for three decades and poured a glass of water. Then I popped a handful of grapes into my mouth and started to feel better.
I loved that time of day, that time just before sunrise. Now that Jimmy, Eric, and Denise were all grown and out of the house, the early hours of the day were no longer linked to slow-passing minutes listening for coughs or cries or, later, teenage feet sneaking in or out of the house. I was free to appreciate the quiet and the way the
yellowish-gray light of the rising sun entered the room, turning everything from black and white to color. The journey from Kansas to Oz right in my own kitchen.
That morning, when the daylight came it brought along a visitor, Dora Jackson. I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle a squeak of surprise when I first caught sight of my mother strolling into the room. She came from the direction of the back door, her short, wide body waddling with an uneven stride from having her left leg badly set by a country doctor when she was a girl.
People used to call us “the twins,” Mama and me. The two of us are round women—big in the chest, thick around the waist, and wide across the hips. We share what has often been charitably called an “interesting” face—narrow eyes, jowly cheeks, broad forehead, big but perfect teeth. I grew to be a few inches taller, five foot three. But if you were to look at pictures of us, you’d swear we were the same woman at different ages.
My mother loved the way she looked. She would strut through town on her uneven legs with her big breasts pointing the way forward, and you knew from looking at her that she figured she was just about the hottest thing going. I never came to love my tube-shaped body the way Mama loved hers, but learning to imitate that confident stride of hers was probably the single smartest thing I ever did.
Mama wore her best dress that Sunday morning, the one she usually brought out only for summer weddings and Easter. It was light blue with delicate yellow flowers and green vines embroidered around the collar and the cuffs of the short sleeves. Her hair was pulled up, the way she wore it for special occasions. She sat down across from me at the table and smiled.
Mama gestured with her hand toward the bowl of grapes on the table and said, “Are you outta ice cream, Odette?”
“I’m trying to eat healthier, maybe take off a few pounds this summer,” I lied, not wanting to admit that I was thinking of the grapes as a first course.
Mama said, “Dietin’ is a waste of energy. Nothin’ wrong with having a few extra pounds on you. And you really shouldn’t drink so much water at this time of day. You were a bedwetter.”
I smiled and, in a childish show of independence, drank more water. Then I tried to change the subject. I asked, “What brings you by, Mama?”
“I just thought I’d come tell you about the fun I had with Earl and Thelma McIntyre. We was up all night goin’ over old times and just laughin’ up a storm. I had forgot just how funny Thelma was. Lord, that was a good time. And that Thelma can roll a joint like nobody’s business, tight little sticks with just enough slack in the roach. I told her—”
“Mama, please,” I interrupted. I looked over my shoulder the way I always did when she started talking about that stuff. My mother had been a dedicated marijuana smoker all of her adult life. She said it was for her glaucoma. And if you reminded her that she’d never had glaucoma, she would bend your ear about the virtues of her preventative vision care regimen.
Other than being against the law, the problem with Mama’s habit, and the reason I automatically glanced over my shoulder when she started talking about that mess, was that James had worked for the Indiana State Police for thirty-five years. Mama got caught twenty years back buying a bag of dope on the state university campus on the north end of town, and as a favor to James, the head of campus security brought her home instead of arresting her. The campus security chief swore he’d keep it under wraps, but things like that never stay quiet in a little town like Plainview. Everybody knew about it by the next morning. It tickled Mama to no end when her getting busted became a sermon topic at church a week later. But James didn’t see the humor in it when it happened, and he never would.
I was eager for Mama to get back on track with the story of her evening with the McIntyres, skipping any illegal parts, because foremost among my mother’s many peculiarities was the fact that, for many years, the vast majority of her conversations had been with dead people. Thelma McIntyre, the excellent joint roller, had been dead for twenty-some years. Big Earl, on the other hand, had been just fine one day earlier when I’d seen him at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat buffet. If he had indeed been visiting with Mama, it was not good news for Big Earl.
“So, Big Earl’s dead, is he?” I asked.
“I imagine so,” she said.
I sat there for a while, not saying anything, just thinking about Big Earl gone from the earth. Mama gazed at me like she was reading my mind and said, “It’s all right, baby. Really. He couldn’t be happier.”
We found out about Mama seeing ghosts at a Thanksgiving supper back in the 1970s. Mama, Daddy, my big brother Rudy, James, Jimmy, Eric, and me—I was pregnant with Denise that fall—were all gathered around the table. In keeping with tradition, I had done all of the cooking. Flowers Mama understood. She had the best garden in town, even before she devoted a plot to her prized marijuana plants. Food Mama never quite got the hang of. The last time Mama attempted to cook a holiday meal, we ended up feeding her black-and-gray glazed ham to the dog and dining on hardboiled eggs. The dog took one bite of Mama’s ham and howled for six hours straight. The poor animal never quite recovered. So I became the family chef at age ten and we ended up with the only vegetarian dog in southern Indiana.
“Hilarious, heartwarming and poignant. . . . A rich and complicated yarn.” —The Chicago Tribune
“Moore shows a seasoned ease with his funny, damaged subjects. . . . You’ll be casting the movie by the second chapter.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Moore has conjured up the story of an entire community and, at its sparkling center, a trio of memorable heroines.” —Julia Glass, author of Three Junes
“Comparisons to The Help and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe are inevitable, but Moore’s take on this rowdy troupe of outspoken, lovable women has its own distinctive pluck.” —Publishers Weekly
“Funny and tenderhearted. . . . The most remarkable quality of The Supremes is love—the author’s love for his characters, even the most flawed, shines from every page.” —Shelf Awareness
“Edward Kelsey Moore knows how to write a terrific, complex, believable, and always intriguing story.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Edward Kelsey Moore has written a novel jam-packed with warmth, honesty, wit, travail, and just enough madcap humor to keep us giddily off-balance. . . . The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is that rare and happy find: a book that delivers not only good story, but good company.” —Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others
“A gripping novel that weaves together the lives of three remarkable women, and does so with flair, wit, and tremendous heart.” —Carolina De Robertis, author of Perla
“The author uses warmhearted humor and salty language to bring to life a tight-knit African-American community. . . . [Has] salt-of-the-earth characters like fearless Odette, motherless Barbara Jean, and sharp-tongued Clarice, along with an event-filled plot that readers will laugh and cry over.” —Library Journal
“A novel of strong women, evocative memories and deep friendship.” —Kirkus Reviews
“I am always a little suspicious of a male writer speaking for female characters, but Moore inhabits and enlarges the experience he creates so delightfully. A real triumph for a brilliant new novelist.” —Suzanne Levine, author of How We Love Now: Women Talk About Intimacy after Fifty
“Edward Kelsey Moore’s The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat had me nodding in recognition and laughing out loud when I wasn’t crying. His delightful voice really rings true, bringing the unforgettable Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean to vivid life on every page.—Connie Briscoe, author of Money Can’t Buy Me Love
“The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat is a scrumptious delight! I can’t wait for my old friends to get to know my new friends: Odette, Barbara Jean, and Clarice (not to mention Odette’s pot-smoking mama and her friend Mrs. Roosevelt!).” —Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters
About This Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Edward Kelsey Moore’s marvelous debut novel, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat.
About This Book
Filled with warmth and unforgettable humor, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat tells the story of three remarkably resilient women: Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean.
Moving back and forth between past and present, the novel orbits around Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner, the first black-owned business in Plainview, Indiana. Clarice, Odette, and Barbara Jean (dubbed the Supremes by their friends) gather at the diner every Sunday to gossip, to hear the latest news of each other’s lives, and to comment on the town’s more eccentric characters, such as the consistently errant fortune-teller Minnie, Clarice’s ridiculously self-important cousin Veronica, and Veronica’s donut-addicted daughter Sharon. Earl watches over the Supremes from high school onward, and his diner represents community for these women, a meeting place that holds their lives together and offers solace, good humor, and support when it is most needed.
As the narrative weaves from past to present and more of the friends’ histories are revealed, the lives of Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean take on greater complexity. Their stories are filled with hard choices and dramatic incident. Clarice gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to marry former football star and charming womanizer Richmond, whose infidelities grow more brazen every day. Barbara Jean struggles with alcohol after the death of her husband, Lester. That death has reopened the wound she suffered when her son, Adam, was killed—run down by the racist brother of a white man she had loved long ago, and still loves. And what Odette thinks are lingering symptoms of menopause turn out to be not hot flashes but a more life-threatening disease. Fearless in her life, she now must face the very real prospect of crossing over to the realm of ghosts that her mother inhabits.
Life continues to test the Supremes’ spirit and resolve, yet these three extraordinary women rise to the challenge, and in the midst of their various trials and travails they never lose their sense of humor, their deep affection for one another, or their abiding capacity for joy.
Question & Answer
1. “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is rooted in the fond memories I have of a childhood spent eavesdropping on the women of my family as they talked at family gatherings. Even when I was too young to fully understand the often very adult subject matter of their conversations, I was struck by how quickly the topics veered from heartbreakingly tragic to wildly hilarious. . . . My intention in writing The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat was to celebrate the joy of true friendship and to invite readers to remember the smart, funny and strong women in their lives.” —Edward Kelsey Moore
Do you think the author has accomplished what he set out to do? Does he, a man, convey the feelings of women accurately and convincingly? In what ways is he especially knowing about women’s feelings?
2. Odette was born in a sycamore tree. Barbara Jean was born on the wrong side of the tracks. Clarice was the first black baby to be born in an all-white hospital. How do the circumstances of each woman’s birth shape her choices as adult? Their interactions with one another? Their relationships with their husbands?
3. When things get tough for the Supremes, they often see the funny side of the worst moments. Moore has a lot of fun with cousin Veronica and her donut-eating daughter. In what other instances do the Supremes use humor to help them survive?
4. Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean are best friends, but they’re quite different. What is a defining moment in each of their lives?
5. Commenting on “the tender considerations that came with being a member of the Supremes,” Odette says: “We overlooked each other’s flaws and treated each other well, even when we didn’t deserve it” (p. 37). What other qualities make the friendship among the three women so extraordinary? In what ways do they help one another?
6. The chapters alternate between Odette’s voice and an omniscient third-person narrator. What is the effect of this in storytelling? Why does Moore choose Odette as a narrator rather than Clarice or Barbara Jean?
7. Ghosts appear throughout the novel. What does Odette’s mother’s voice add to the story? What kind of personality comes through? In what ways does she represent a voice of wisdom, and can this be helpful or aggravating to Odette?
8. One of Dora Jackson’s beliefs is that “what we call miracles is just what’s supposed to happen. We either go with it or stand in its way” (p.296). What seemingly miraculous events occur in the novel, and why do some characters choose to “go with it” and others “stand in [their] way”?
9. Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is the first black-owned restaurant in Plainview, Indiana. What role does place play in the novel, and how does the diner shape the lives of the main characters?
10. The Supremes grew up in tumultuous times. How was each one of them affected by the major social changes for African Americans, as well as for women, that occurred over the course of their lives?
11. How are the men who love the Supremes—James, Richmond, Lester, and Chick—each a reflection of the woman he loves? And what does each husband give to the woman in his life that she treasures, despite his failings?
12. Why does Clarice decide not to move back in with Richmond, even after he feels they’ve patched things up? What other changes do you see in Clarice after her separation from her husband, specifically in her relationship with music and religion? Do you think she will follow her dream as a musician?
13. Do you think that after a life of hard knocks, Barbara Jean will finally find happiness with Chick? Or is she destined for more tough times ahead?
14. Whether alive or dead (or a ghost), the mothers of the Supremes play a major role in their daughters’ lives. As the Supremes grow older, how do their mothers continue to exert an influence on their adult lives? Who is hurt most by it? Who is helped by it? Who is most like her mother as she gets older?
15. Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean each attend three very different churches. In what ways did growing up in these particular churches help to shape them into women they ultimately became?
About This Author
Edward Kelsey Moore lives and writes in Chicago, where he has enjoyed a long career as a cellist. His short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, African American Review, and Inkwell. His short story “Grandma and the Elusive Fifth Crucifix” was selected as an audience favorite on National Public Radio’s Stories on Stage series. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is his first novel.
Eric Jerome Dickey, Sister, Sister; Bebe Moore Campbell, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine; Fannie Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias; Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Sheneska Jackson, Li’l Mama’s Rules; Terry McMillan, Waiting to Exhale; Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty; Kathryn Stockett, The Help.