Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I think I've mentioned before how much I like books with layered narratives. In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg tells two stories simultaneously. The first is set in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression (it starts out in 1929); the second is set mostly in a nursing home in Birmingham, Alabama in the '80s (starting in 1985).

The stories alternate, with Mrs Threadgoode (in the present) telling Evelyn Couch the story of Idgie, Ruth and the Whistle Stop Cafe. Evelyn doesn't know Mrs. Threadgoode when the novel begins, but she has come to the nursing home with her husband to visit his aunt who hates her. So rather than endure the torment of insult after insult, Evelyn retires to the common area, where Mrs. Threadgoode approaches her and starts telling her story.

It starts when Idgie Threadgoode (Mrs. Threadgoode's sister-in-law) was just a girl. Forever getting into trouble, Idgie's childhood was a wild one. She idolized her older brothers, especially Buddy, and followed them around, learning what they knew and copying what they did. But then Buddy was killed, hit by a train, in front of Idgie and she ran away for a while to live in the woods and deal with her grief alone.

But she comes back and grows up and eventually initiates a kind of friendship with Ruth, who had been Buddy's girlfriend and also present on the day he died. But Ruth is trapped in an extremely abusive relationship with a man named Frank. And one day Ruth writes to Idgie asking for help, so Idgie goes and gets her and they open up the Whistle Stop Cafe. And then Ruth has her baby, a boy she names Buddy.

One of the things Flagg does best, besides her depiction of friendship, is her invocation of the social realities in Whistle Stop, Alabama in the '20s and '30s. Poverty and racial tensions run high and Idgie and Ruth have more than one run in with the local Ku Klux Klan for daring to sell food to the black residents from their back kitchen door.

The cafe, in fact, is famous for its barbecue, coffee and pie. And because Whistle Stop is right on the railway, the rotating cast of customers and regulars offers Flagg a way to comment on the fortunes of the outside world without being too direct about it.

And just as I was the first time I read Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn Couch is riveted by the story Mrs. Threadgoode tells her. Evelyn is an overweight, middle-aged woman at the brink of menopause. She's depressed, unhappy in her marriage and unhappy with herself, and in the stories Mrs. Threadgoode tells her she finds a kind of escape. Suddenly, Evelyn has something to look forward to and, maybe for the first time, she is able to envision the kind of intrepid woman she wants to be.

Typically, in a story that alternates perspective and era, there's one narrative that really catches your attention and one that you just hurry through. The first time I read Fried Green Tomatoes (which was, in the spirit of full disclosure, after I had already seen the movie numerous times), all I wanted to read about were Idgie and Ruth. Their lives seemed so removed from mine, so full of adventure and customs and politics. I think as a kid I kind of wanted to be Idgie.

But now, when I go back to the novel, as much as my love for Idgie and Ruth is unwavering, I've developed a new fondness for Evelyn. In her own way, Evelyn is fighting societal norms as much as Idgie was, it's just less obvious because the battle Evelyn is waging is internal. But Evelyn has Mrs. Threadgoode and Idgie and Ruth have each other, which is a point I think Flagg is careful to make.

The friendship of women, as Flagg presents it, has changed very little in 60 years in terms what what it means. It isn't that Flagg is in any way anti-men (except maybe Frank, who she makes disappear), but Fried Green Tomatoes is most definitely a book about women and the strength they gain from their friends.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg
First published in 1987 by Random House (cover image shown from that edition)

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