What The Spitfire Grill Taught Me About 2nd Chances

The_Spitfire_GrillMy good friend Heidi introduced me to the movie “The Spitfire Grill”.

And it wrecked me.

As with all things that wreck us, I was partially resentful for it because the perspective I had was safe, sound and secure. It didn’t need any wrecking balls! And yet some stories ‘get under your skin’ (as Heidi would say) with a torturous itch. They won’t get out, and there’s no salve to relieve the reality of their wrecking. I’ve blogged here and there before about The Spitfire Grill, but today I needed to give it lots of space.

The plot begins with Percy Talbot acting as a travel agent, but as a prisoner of the Department of Corrections. Released after serving her time, Percy is dropped off in the middle of nowhere, Maine, and winds up in the tiny spit of Gilead. Small towns being the gossip mills that they are, everyone is suspicious of the newcomer; and while the Sheriff vouches for Percy’s character, even tough ol’ Hannah Ferguson (the owner of The Spitfire Grill) is wary, and doesn’t really want the extra help in her kitchen.

A serious injury for Hannah assures Percy a place at The Spitfire Grill in Gilead for the forseeable future. With the help of Hannah’s niece-by-marriage, Shelby, Percy begins to find a tiny niche.

The incredible movement of The Spitfire Grill is that every character comes to the plot with a hidden story. Hannah lost her son in the Vietnam War; Shelby is emotionally and verbally abused by Hannah’s nephew, Nahum; Nahum is dead-set on opening the quarry again, trying to revive a dying town; and Hannah’s son, Eli (presumed killed in action), is not really dead but rather traumatized by his tours of duty and lives as a recluse up in woods behind The Spitfire Grill.

Percy’s story isn’t fully realized by the viewer until the end, although bits and pieces are handed out throughout the screenplay. Raped by her stepfather, Percy was impregnated at the age of 16. She came to love the life growing within her and vowed to care for it. Unwilling to feed another mouth, Percy’s stepdad beat her so badly that she miscarried. While recovering in hospital he abducted her, driving her to an unknown destination. While in the hotel room with him, she seized her chance and killed him. For the crime of self-defense, she was found guilty of manslaughter. As penance, Percy blamed herself for not being able to care for her unborn child like she promised. God hated her. God hates her. God is ready to doom her. She is a lost cause.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL, Marcia Gay Harden, 1996, ©Columbia Pictures
THE SPITFIRE GRILL, Marcia Gay Harden, 1996, ©Columbia Pictures

By far and away, my favourite character is Shelby. In the beginning, she’s a mousy, soft-spoken woman who seems almost incapable of speaking up for herself. Originally a bit fearful of Percy, she lends a hand in The Spitfire Grill’s kitchen after Hannah’s accident. Percy and Shelby become fast friends. It’s here that Shelby reveals that Hannah is trying to sell the place, and Percy offers a brilliant way to raffle it off. Percy’s easy-going acceptance helps Shelby to shine, and Shelby finds herself loved, her purpose affirmed.

The incredible thing about wishy-washy Shelby is: it is Shelby who vouches for Percy to the very end, even when the whole town stands in accusation. The person thought to be weak, submissive, and uncertain extends the unconditional acceptance and love that Percy has been dying to taste. The most gentle character turns out to be one of the most transformative without really even knowing it.

Percy, Hannah, and Shelby all set out to launch the great raffle plan. In the process, it brings the suffering town together, gets people out of their houses and into the sunlight, has people talking (and gossiping!) about new blood revitalizing Gilead. Winter seems to be melting into spring. The three women discover a depth of relationship that none feel they deserve, while never admitting that vulnerablility to each other. Sometimes, second chances are savoured best when held in secrecy for a time to be treasured by the receiver. Who better to appreciate it than the one who needs it the most?

During her days off, Percy rambles through the forest behind Gilead. Pygmatite rock formations create pristine gorges for a fast-flowing river through the region, and the colours are astounding. These natural wonders are, in fact, the reasons Percy ended up in Gilead and why she hangs on to it so dearly.

Unbeknownst to Hannah, Percy meets Eli and begins growing a deep connection with him. Not knowing his true identity, she names him “Johnny B., as in ‘Johnny B.Good'” – the name she was going to give her unborn child. Unbeknownst to Percy (and everyone else), Hannah knows Eli is alive. The only reason she’s selling the grill is to get enough money to find help for her son’s haunted life. Did I mention every character comes to the plot with secrets?

The most powerful scene in the movie for me is when Percy is especially beaten down by life. She retreats into the woods at sunrise, follows Johnny B./Eli’s little carvings as trail markers, and wanders into a clearing where she can see the entire countryside stretching out before her. Johnny B./Eli comes quietly up behind her… and simply rests his hand on her head as she sits and sings over and over again:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the worried soul

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the worried soul…

Ultimately, the characters’ true intentions and stories are revealed story by story. Nahum, who ends up being Percy’s downfall, confesses finally that “I never knew Percy Talbot… I was wrong as wrong could be”. Yet even in such powerful confessions, sometimes there is no undoing what’s done.

So many of the youth I’ve met along my journey are asking only for a second chance. For most, if they’re anything like me, it’s not really a second chance they’re needing but a third… a fourth… a 10,000th.

Some stories carry such pain that in trying to shoulder them alone breaks us; sometimes being broken is a good thing for us — it’s where God can meet us and finally pick up the weight we were never meant to bear. Other times, we are broken by others without any just cause and we can’t reason out “Why?!”

Sometimes I’m like Nahum: I don’t want to give anyone with a sketchy history a second chance and I’ll do anything to malign them or paint them in a bad light so they’ll get the message to steer clear. Move along.

Sometimes I’m like Percy: I have secrets I don’t want the world to know, even if the world already knows what’s been made public (with or without my consent). I retreat into the wildnerness and find kindred spirits there.

Most of the time, however, I’m like Shelby: I don’t know the power of my own voice or story. I live my life day after day with good people in my life (like Shelby has her daughters), and with not-so-good people (like Nahum). Sometimes the not-so-good people get the better of me and I bow down because fear gets me so easily. Yet when a little light like Percy passes by, my own light suddenly bursts forth like the dawn and I ride on the heights of the land with God. I am transformed by the passers-by in my life, like the Percys, and by God.

I am reminded again and again at how I need second chances every day. Those carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders might be on their 10,000th chance, but that’s the gift they need. And it needs to be given.

Given fully and freely.

Second chances are a balm to make the wounded whole.

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