Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Regular visitors to Rebel Voice will likely recognize the title of this novel as that of a wonderful 1991 movie starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy. You may be pleased to read that the book is every bit as great – and even more so – than its big screen adaptation.
Whistle Stop is a sleepy stop-over in 1930s Alabama where the railroad yards lie and where Birmingham, just ten miles distant, is an entire world away. It’s a small place plentiful with big personalities, foremost among them being the Threadgoode family.
Idgie Threadgoode is one of the central protagonists in this tale. A formidable feminist of some renown, she prefers to bed women as men and will let no one step on her or those she loves. One of the latter is Ruth Jamison, who flees an abusive husband whilst newly pregnant to find shelter in Idgie’s arms. Ruth’s son, Stump (so-called because he lost part of his arm in a train accident when still a child) is adopted by everyone in Whistle Stop as is their wont. The two determined women, and their child, run the only cafe in the village where they provide both nutritional and moral sustenance for all and sundry.
Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe is a book about memories. We meet Ninny Threadgoode, wife of Cleo and sister-in-law of Idgie, as she lives out her last years in a Birmingham nursing home in 1985. Ninny is befriended by Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife who regularly accompanies her husband as he visits his demanding mother. Evelyn and Ninny become good pals as Ninny regales her more youthful friend with stories from Whistle Stop, most concerning the Threadgoode family in particular.
We come to learn that, in a land where racism was the norm, the large and boisterous Threadgoode family had other ideas in mind and acted upon them. There is Sipsey, the black housekeeper for the family who, along with her adopted daughter Onzell, becomes cook for the cafe owned by Idgie. Sipsey knows the unfortunate place that has been allocated to her and her kind by the white supremacist society of the time. She also understands that the Threadgoodes, and Idgie in particular, are not like those to be found in groups such as the ridiculous KKK who regularly make their presence felt in Whistle Stop. Sipsey’s loyalty to Idgie and Ruth knows no bounds. Nor does that of her son-in-law, Big George, who also helps around the cafe. They are all very much family to the Threadgoodes.
The story proper begins with the opening of the cafe on June 12th, 1929, as the Great Depression bites hard into the lives of ordinary people caught on the margins. The Whistle Stop Cafe becomes a place where hobos and those down on their luck can get a hot meal and a place to lay their weary heads. One of those men is Jim Smokey Philips. Smokey begins to think of Whistle Stop, and perhaps more accurately Idgie and Ruth, as home. When Smokey Lonesome, as Idgie affectionately calls him, gets tired of wandering, he heads for the Whistle Stop Cafe where he knows he’ll find a welcome. Smokey also finds himself falling innocently and hopelessly in love with the beautiful Ruth.
Ninny entrances Evelyn with her vivid accounts from a past long gone. As the beguiled Evelyn struggles to put her own life in perspective, she finds solace in Ninny’s tales and looks forward to her weekly visit to the nursing home. The action, therefore, switches from the past to the present, and from Whistle Stop to Birmingham and beyond as the lives of our new friends is revealed in an ofttimes painfully poignant depiction of one tiny slice of American life.
This book is guaranteed to prise a tear or two from those capable of such. The reader becomes engrossed in the past as much as Evelyn does. The reader will also feel as if the character list contains many of the types of friends we all wish we had. There are parts of the story that are inspiring, others that are shocking and many that will leave you with an ache in your heart. This novel is that good.
There are plots and sub-plots. There is the mysterious train-robber, Railroad Bill, who jumps on carriages and tosses stolen food out to those starving black citizens who live along the tracks. No one can figure out how he knows which trains to board and how he manages to evade capture by railroad detectives such as Grady Kilgore, Sheriff of Whistle Stop and good friend of Idgie.
Many humorous and sometimes inconsequential snippets of Whistle Stop gossip are provided in the Weems Weekly, a homemade bulletin edited by Dot Weems, postmistress of Whistle Stop and long time friend of the Threadgoodes. The innocent chatter that Dot relates helps to create a greater intimacy and adds one more layer to an already profound and addictive read.
There are killings, broken relationships, Evelyn’s journey of self-discovery, sexual shenanigans, prohibition, war, family and friendship in this masterpiece. The themes are tastefully and expertly presented and will elicit smiles, laughs and tears of both sadness and joy. It’s the mark of a truly wonderful story that it can play with the reader’s emotions in this way, but Fannie Flagg’s book does and you will be grateful to her for it.
Rebel Voice would love to give a blow by blow account of Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, but that would be to do an injustice to the book and any potential readers. This is one piece of literary heaven that is best enjoyed for yourselves. Just be sure to keep some tissues handy as this story will play the most beautiful and heart-rending lament on those heartstrings of yours. You have been warned.
Sult scale rating: 9.5 out of 10. This is one of the most highly recommended books that Rebel Voice has ever reviewed. Do not ignore this novel as it might possibly, in some subtle and sensitive way, change your life.
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