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'The Chicken Sisters' Offers A Fun Fictional Peek At An Age-Old Kansas Rivalry

The tiny town of Merinac, Kansas -- the setting of KJ Dell’Antonia’s new novel, “The Chicken Sisters” -- is a fictional place. But anyone familiar with a two-lane stretch of road in southeast Kansas will immediately recognize it:

This is “Chicken Dinner Road” -- home of Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s, two restaurants that sit about 300 feet apart and have been the center of a fried chicken debate for 70 years.

Dell’Antonia, who spent part of her childhood in Crawford County, based her novel on the famous rivalry, which is clear from the first lines of the book jacket: “Three generations. Two chicken shacks. One recipe for disaster.”

In fictional Merinac, the legendary feud features Chicken Mimi’s and Chicken Frannie’s and their respective owners, the Moores and the Pogociellos. Amanda Moore grew up working for her mother at the more casual chicken shack, Mimi’s. But then she marries Frank Pogociello -- “It was like Romeo and Juliet, only with fried chicken,” she says -- and Amanda switches sides to the fancier Chicken Frannie’s team, which boasts a full bar and vegetarian options.

When Amanda hears about the reality show “Food Wars,” she emails the producers, asking them to consider an episode featuring the rival restaurants. Amanda thinks the exposure could mean big business for Merinac -- not to mention a $100,000 prize for the winner. What she doesn’t see coming is a greedy TV producer pulling the covers off family secrets and a strained relationship between Amanda and her sister, Mae.

“The Chicken Sisters” offers a fun, if fictional, peek at small-town Kansas life. I had a hard time keeping up with a confusing web of characters at first, but the novel eventually settles in and offers a charming version of an age-old Kansas rivalry. And now I’m craving fried chicken.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.