I began reading Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe with low expectations. Can a woman who voluntarily renames herself Fannie Flagg be trusted to write a great work of literature? Can a book which inspires a film starring Chris O’Donnell be anything other than pure schmaltz?
I won’t fannie about (sorry). Yes, Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, with its central story of mid-life-crisis-ridden Evelyn Couch finding solace and empowerment through her conversations with Ninny Threadgoode, a resident of an Alabama nursing home, has its Hollywood moments of convenient come-uppances, sassy sisterhood, and heavenly do-gooders. No wonder The Donnell signed up. He loves that shizzle.
However, one of life’s vital lessons is to Not Be Duped By An Innocuous-seeming Fannie (sorry). Flagg’s tale, skipping between Evelyn’s present-day visits to Ninny and the story of Ninny’s life growing up around the 1930s Whistle-Stop Cafe, is a trip down the memory lane of twentieth-century American history. Not the big political stuff with the nukes and the Watergates and Clinton with his willy out. Rather, the social undercurrent of a tumultuous century: the rise and fall of American town and cities, portrayed through the tumbleweedery that followed the Whistle Stop cafe’s ‘30s vibrancy; race relations in a community that cannot elude KKK interference (look out for an hilarious moment when these hooded fools are identified by the footwear they neglected to change under their white cloaks); and the experience of women during a century wrought by cataclysmic change.
And in these troubled times, Whistle Stop is a welcomed reminder of what humans being decent to each other, and becoming their best selves, looks like. The magic of charity – most excitingly exposed through the tale of an unidentified ‘Railroad Bill’ who ‘relieves’ trains of food deliveries to feed the Depression poor. Resplendent karma – the resolution of the mysterious disappearance of an abusive husband, which is less Brookside and more a humourous nod to Silence of the Lambs (if one can imagine such a thing). Humans supporting each other to overcome the greatest of hurdles – the beautiful, touching story of Idgie’s disabled son Stump. Above all, love in various forms – the accepted and unremarked-upon relationship between Ruth and Idgie; Smokey the Tramp’s unfaltering, unspoken adoration of Ruth; and the synergy between Evelyn and Ninny, showing the emotional sustenance old and young can bestow upon each other:
…after all these months of being with Mrs Threadgoode each week, things had begun to change. Ninny Threadgoode made her feel young. She began to see herself as a woman with half of her life still ahead of her. Her friend really believed she was capable of selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Nobody had ever believed she could do anything before…least of all, Evelyn herself.
What’s not to like? And on reflection, once I ceased my childish sniggers at this author’s name, I began to think that, since some fearful elements of the patriarchy seem to believe all fannies should carry warning flags, perhaps her name carries an unintended resonance in these gender-warring times. Henceforth I shall be known as…answers on a postcard please!