sometimes witty book reviews
I first encountered this book via my mother’s love for the film adaption Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). After several dozen viewings I happened to spy Fannie Flagg’s original novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe ion a clearance shelf and pounced on it. I decided to save reading it until the film plot had become sufficiently hazy. The last time I was home I poached the book back from mum. I couldn’t help it, once I’d read the first ten pages I could barely put it down.
Evelyn Couch is a fat, middle aged woman living in the mid 1980s. She didn’t sleep around at school for fear of being called a slut and for similar reasons avoided the feminist wave of the late seventies for fear of further name calling. She’s lost and alone when we find her, sitting in a nursing home waiting for her husband to finish visiting his mother. Here she meets Mrs Threadgoode, an octogenarian resident who like all good Southerners can talk the leg off a horse. Soon Evelyn is visiting just to hear Mrs Threadgoode’s stories her about home town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. As the weeks turn to months, Whistle Stop of yor works it’s magic on Evenlyn who starts turning her life around inch my waistline-inch.
It seems the entire population of Whistle Stop is running around Mrs Threadgoode’s head. For instance, there was a girl born in in Whistle Stop in 1909 named Idgie who loved two things all her life: her brother Buddy and her darling Ruth. When Buddy was killed suddenly, little Idgie went off the rails. That is until she met Ruth. And they had a baby. And started the town’s famous cafe. And no one thought that their totally lesbian relationship was weird at all. Then there’s Sipsey, the cafe’s cook, her son Big George – who does all the cafe’s barbecuing – and his wife Onzell. They have four children named Wonderful Counselor, Naughty Bird and the twins Jasper and Artis. Jasper was born so pale he was almost white and had as good a life as a black man could in the South at the time. His twin Artis, however, was so dark-skinned ‘that his gums were navy blue’ and suffered for the fate of his birth in slums, gaol and poverty.
Evelyn tries to piece together life at Whistle Stop as Mrs Threadgoode’s memories ebb and flow, escape her or coming flooding back with searing clarity. Who hit Ruth and why? Did the Ku Klux Klan ever get at Sipsey and her family? Where did Idgie go in the years after Buddy’s death? What did Artis keep hiding? What was that tramp named Smokey Lonesome doing in Whistle Stop? Was he the one throwing food off government supply trains as they pass through the black neighbourhood? Did she just say someone was murdered?
The narrative is told through various voices at various times and in no particular order. At first this style was a little frustrating. But then it hit me – Flagg was writing almost in a stream of memories. Time is uncertain and often irrelevant to Mrs Threadgoode’s whimsical chronology. Sometimes it’s Mrs Threadgoode talking to Evelyn. Sometimes an omnipresent narrator fills in the details for her. Often there’s an article from the weekly Whistle Stop news. Other times it’s a report from the police in Georgia. A chapter will be written in 1919, the next in 1955, the following in 1924 and finally back to Evelyn’s life diary in 1987. That Flagg can tell you the end of the story before she’s barely begun and still keep you hooked for another 350 pages is quite a skill.
Prose wise, this is an easy read. Except for a few things which an Aussie like me needs translating (what on earth are grits, really?), the sentences ramble on pleasantly. The swearing, I’m sure, would have been more groundbreaking at the time of publication. In terms of dealing with race relations, this is a rather sugared-up and white-sided view of life in the South from 1910-1980. Maybe if I were American Flagg’s very PC and progressive view towards her black characters in the 1980s would be more impressive to me, or not. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful story packed full of personalities.
Reading Suggestion: If you are a vegetarian be prepared for some serious temptation as Flagg describes Sipsey’s cooking.