“One day Cleo was going out the door and he pointed up to where all the old blackbirds were sitting on a telephone wire in front of our house, and he’d say, ‘Be careful what you say on the phone today, Ninny, you know they’re up there listening to what you say. They can hear through their feet.’”
A couple of days after Christmas a friend and I spent a day in New Orleans browsing the bookstores, pawing through countless dusty shelves looking for the hidden treasure that suddenly peeps out from a dark hiding place between two run-of the-mill titles. If you’re lucky, three or four rare finds make their way to the light over the course of a day and the hour after hour bending, reaching, standing and crouching becomes worthwhile. A long time back—around 1990 or so—I read a cheap little paperback book that grabbed me so solidly I was unable to get out of my chair, moving over the course of several hours only to turn on the lamp as the sun faded. Obviously, the book was what some reviewers are quick to call ‘a page-turner.’ What a bland description for a book so rich in story and character, one that prompts laughter on one page and tears on the next. The book that captured me so completely that day was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, published in 1987 by Random House. On that recent book browsing day in New Orleans one of the treasures that came into my hands was a first edition hardback copy in almost mint condition.
Though the author of six books, most of us remember Fannie Flagg as co-host of television’s Candid Camera with Allen Funt back in the 1970s. She has enjoyed a long career as not just a writer, but as a performer on Broadway, television and in film. Flagg used the small town of Irondale, a suburb of her hometown Birmingham, Alabama as a model for the 1987 book that spent 36 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
The story of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe revolves around the people of tiny Whistle Stop, Alabama, mainly the Threadgoode family and the people who eat at the cafe, but as the characters move in out and around their small town, the setting follows their movement. The main thrust of the tale is seen (and told) from the perspective and reminiscences of Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly member of the Threadgoode family residing in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home and talking to her new friend, Evelyn Couch, a Birmingham housewife. Oddities and tidbits about Whistle Stop are also shown through regular offerings from post office clerk Dot Weems writing in the town’s weekly bulletin. The book’s major focus is Idgie Threadgoode and her lifelong friend and companion, Ruth Jamison, the two women who open the Whistle Stop Cafe in 1929. But their lives and the cafe are intertwined with a host of more than a dozen characters that give the book its color and multiplicity of themes. First there is the issue of two women living together as a couple—Idgie the lifelong tomboy and Ruth, the gentle beauty escaping a drunk and abusive husband. The life and condition of southern blacks during the period from the 1920s through the ’80s is another of Flagg’s main themes, as is aging, death and acceptance. Then there is the question of whether murder can be justified under extreme conditions. And naturally, since much of the action takes place in a cafe, food and eating is another of the book's prominent motifs. (The last pages of the book are a collection of recipes from the Whistle Stop’s old black cook, Sipsey.)
One of the more enjoyable qualities of this small journey over time is the collection of individual voices created for the characters. Hard perhaps to find another character in literature that colors language like Idgie Threadgoode, one minute irreverent, the next gentle and understanding, at all times a fount of southern idiom, most of it masculine. Testifying in court she calls the prosecutor a “…gump-faced, blowed up, baboon-assed bastard.” Harper Lee once described Idgie as a woman Huck Finn would have tried to marry. Her friend Ruth is given the gentle vocal rhythms of a Sunday school teacher, a twentieth century Melanie Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. The elderly Ninny, who at times unknowingly wears her dress inside out, describes the girl in the beauty shop, saying, “Oh, she was a full-grown woman, only she was tiny, she had to stand on a box while she did my hair. I’d say she was about two inches away from being a midget. Of course, I don’t let any handicap like that bother me, and I love a midget…I wonder what ever happened to that little midget that sold cigarettes on the radio and TV. I used to get the biggest kick out of him…always wished he’d come to Whistle Stop so I could sit him on my lap and play with him.”
In these days when most news headlines scream of death and carnage, shootings and stabbings, when events all seem shaped out of remnants from the Dark Ages, it is comforting to stumble upon stories of a gentler time when people didn’t offer insult and abuse on every corner, when there was never a need to lock doors or lose yourself in small screens and earphones. In her book about Idgie Threadgoode and Whistle Stop, Alabama Fannie Flagg coaxes us back to that time before, bringing to her readers equal portions of delight and anguish, the daily turnings that made up life for a different kind of townsfolk.