I'm inaugurating a new weekly feature -- Sunday Book Notes. If I counted all the objects I own, the vast majority would be books. I've lived a lot of my life in worlds spun of words, so much so that when I was a kid, I often couldn't remember if I had read something, dreamed it, or lived it. Plus, I am lying in bed sick (on Memorial Day weekend! No Fair!), so I've had a lot of time to read this week.
Fittingly enough, I picked this book up at a cafe. Like the one in the book, the cafe is old-fashioned and a little disheveled, serving up unmatched tables and delicious apple pie in a sunny corner building that once was a hardware store. One wall is covered with bookcases. You are welcome to borrow or donate a book. So, when I saw Fried Green Tomatoes on the shelf, I took it home.
I've wanted to read Fried Green Tomatoes since the movie came out in 1991. I loved this quiet little film, which alternates between the story of Eleanor, a fat, unfulfilled, middle-aged housewife in the late 1980s and the tale of lesbian couple Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison in Depression-era Alabama, which Eleanor hears from an old woman she visits in a nursing home every Sunday.
Now, a strange thing happens when you've seen (and liked) a movie before you've read the book: It is almost impossible not to imagine the actors -- their voices, expressions, hair and clothes -- when you read the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the actors capture the characters as beautifully as they did in Fried Green Tomatoes. Kathy Bates is perfect as the frumpy housewife who discovers her spine, and Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker are just as good as tomboy Idgie and the gentle, doe-eyed Ruth who steals her heart. So, as I've been reading the book, I've been seeing and hearing these actresses in my head. (That said, I always try to read the book first. I pity kids whose first exposure to The Lord of the Rings or other treasures is through the movie, no matter how wonderful the movie may be. But I digress.)
While the film captures the essence of the novel, it does gloss rather daintily over the lesbian relationship at its core. The book's matter-of-fact depiction of this life-long love affair is one of its charms. When 16-year-old Idgie, the fierce "bee charmer" who hunts and fishes instead of going to school, falls for "sweet to the bones" Ruth, it doesn't seem to faze anyone. Years later, after Idgie rescues a pregnant Ruth from her abusive husband, Idgie's father gives her $250 and tells her to start a business so she can feed her growing family. There's no sense that they must explain or justify themselves. It is just the way it is. Whistle Stop accepts them into the fold, just as they accept and expect segregation.
Flagg portrays the violence and racisim of the South as matter-of-factly as she does the love affair between Idgie and Ruth. Idgie and Mary are quietly subversive, selling barbeque out the back door of their cafe to blacks in spite of threats from the Ku Klux Klan, among other details I won't give away in case you plan to read the book.
The fictional world of Whistle Stop, Alabama feels real. You have the sense of observing lived lives. The book captures, in a way the film cannot, the full fabric of this little town, through vignettes of people, black and white, most of whom live on the wrong side of the tracks. It's not just Idgie and Ruth's story, but the story of their son Stump, of hobo Smokey Lonesome, Eva the town whore, Buddy, Sipsey, Big George, Onzel and Naughty Bird, with all their joys and human failings. When the trains stop coming through Whistle Stop and people start to move away, when the decades roll on by until the cafe is replaced by a McDonald's, I feel a pang of loss as strong as that when a beloved character dies.
Despite its often rather grim subject matter, this book is full of its laugh-out-loud humor. But, whenever I'm tempted to lapse into an idealized vision of a simpler time of practical jokes and tales tales and scenes of big extended families laughing over Easter egg hunts, Flagg brings me up short with a young man being beaten to death in a tar-paper Hooverville or an ominous visit from men in white sheets.
Perhaps I'm also drawn to the book because it sheds light on my grandparents and parents. Mom and dad spent their childhoods in hardscrabble Oklahoma during the Depression, and Whistle Stop, Alabama reminds me of pictures of my grandmothers standing in their faded cotton dresses in front of sagging frame houses, babies draped casually over their arms.
I also enjoy the disjointed nature of the book, which shifts time periods and narrative perspective from one short chapter to another. We may hear about an episode first from a brief item in the chatty local newspaper, then observe that same event from an omniscent perspective in the next chapter. As I a writer struggling with structure in my memoir, I'm fascinated by Flagg's deft handling of this technique. I wonder if she wrote the book chronologically, then moved the chapters around afterward?
I suppose I ought to give the some stars or thumbs up or something. I'm tempted to use tomatoes, in honor of the book inaugurating this weekly feature, but that's already been done. So how about pies? Every time Evelyn visits Ninny in the nursing home, she takes her pie or cake or biscuits or some kind of tasty treat, and reading this book made me hungry.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: 4 slices (out of a possible 5).