Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Cafe

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).


  1. You have done a wonderful review of this book. I have actually read it twice. Fannie Flagg also writes a short series about growing up in the the 50's which is excellent. It begins with the book "Welcome to the World Baby Girl" You might enjoy reading it as well.

  2. So, I'll be honest here: I probably won't be reading Fried Green Tomatoes, BUT I'm impressed with your review and now trust your opinion. I like the pies too. Nice work.

  3. Thanks Rae and C Andres. I don't know any of Flagg's other work, but will look for them. C: not every book is for every reader, for sure. Thanks so much for the nice comment!

  4. Lovely review. Thanks for sharing this. Makes me want to grab the book and start reading it right away. I find the era of the Ku Klux Klan fascinating. Perhaps that's why I enjoy reading Gone With The Wind, having read it several times already.
    The Sunday Book Notes feature sounds wonderful. I am looking forward to more interesting book reviews.
    You take care and get well soon, Frankie.
    - Bijita

  5. Thanks Bijita! I enjoy GWTW too, mostly for the character of Scarlett, who I love to hate. Fried Tomatoes is more honest and hard-hitting about racism than GWTW. It's more like To Kill a Mockingbird in that sense. Actually, Harper Lee, who was a notorious recluse, wrote a blurb praising Fried Green Tomatoes. And here's a scary thought: As much as we'd like to think its a thing of the past, the KKK still exists in America. I'm so glad you like this new feature!

  6. Frankie, I read this post yesterday and then had to go off and try to remember. I saw the movie may be a year after it came out. I have not read the book. For the life of me I cannot recall anything about the lesbian relationship between the two women. Shows you how much I knew way back when, which is zilch! All the more reason for me to read the book now. Lovely review. I will read the book.

    I love this feature and will look for it every Sunday!

    P.S. Hope you're feeling better now.

  7. Sujatha, the movie only hints at their relationship. If it was being made today, of course, they would play it up, throw in lots of nudity, and market it to the adolescent male audience. Thanks for the comments on the Sunday feature. Now I have to be sure to keep it updated!!

  8. What an excellent review. Haven't read it for YEARS and you've enthused me to go and dig it out of the bookshelves and put on the (wobbly) high pile by the bed. Thanks for your note on SCC, Frankie. I'm fine now after a blip, and back blogging again, so come over and read about the Wanton Toast Eater's Little Project.

    Lucy at http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com

  9. Is very helpful to change our habits, we need to think the obesity is very danger for everybody, is like a pump that can explot any time. So is necesary to take care of ourselves, exercising and taking good and healthy food and stop eating junk food. The life is too short, so we need to take care of us every single day for enjoy the things that the life gave to us. I bought my house through costa rica homes for sale so i want to enjoy it for long time. That is why i eat healthy including tomatoes, lettuce, vegetables and fruits.