Title: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
Author: Fannie Flagg
Publication Date: 1987
Purchase Price: $7.19 (paperback)
Misc. Info.: Flagg has written tons of other books, and all are wonderful and worth reading.
It’s Sunday, and the last thing Evelyn Couch wants to do is go visit her mother-in-law at the nursing home. Ever since her mother’s death, Evelyn has hated places that smell like hospitals. Always a nervous and shy individual, Evelyn has spent most of her life “doing what is expected” of her, and the strain is beginning to show: she feels fat, is unable to connect emotionally with her husband or (now-grown) children, and is entertaining serious thoughts of suicide. She excuses herself from her mother-in-law’s room and goes to the nursing home’s lounge to eat a candy bar. As she begins to eat, an 86 year-old resident, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, begins to ramble on about her life in Whistle Stop, Alabama.
The woman’s ramblings revolve around Idgie (Imogene) Threadgoode and the Whistle Stop Café, a business owned by Idgie and Ruth Jamison. And as Evelyn starts to learn more of the amazing story of Whistle Stop, she finds herself changing in ways that she never expected. Because the women of the Whistle Stop Café not only serve up delicious food at Depression prices…they may have served one of those meals up with a fresh side of murder.
This is my favorite book to have read and reviewed thus far. Not only does it bring back great memories (many parts of the story remind me of my family and the area in which they live), but it’s also a genuinely wonderful story–and we all know how I love great stories!
The first thing that pops out at the reader is the novel’s format. It jumps back and forth from Evelyn’s story (set in 1986) to the story that Ninny Threadgoode is telling (1929-1955). Sprinkled within those tales are editions of The Weems Weekly, a weekly paper published in Whistle Stop during and after the Depression. Also included in the narrative are the further stories of several of the African American characters (mainly Artis and Jasper Peavey and Jasper’s children). It all has the potential to become very muddled, but Flagg has sidestepped that issue by attaching locations and dates to the beginning of each chapter.
Having only seen the 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes” prior to reading Flagg’s novel, I was very surprised by the differences shown in Ruth and Idgie’s relationship. In the film they are merely close friends, but in the book it is very obvious that they are in love with each other. It’s such an integral part of the book–for several reasons–but in the movie it’s all just sort of glossed over (although the film’s director, Jon Avnet, has stated that the food scene between Ruth and Idgie is an analogy for a love scene between the two that was not included in the film).
A Side Note Regarding History
I was a bit flummoxed by the characters’ behavior and thoughts regarding the women’s (obviously homosexual) relationship. Idgie’s mother tells her kids, “Now, children, your sister has a crush, and I don’t want one person to laugh at her.” Ruth and Idgie end up owning and running the Whistle Stop Café together, and Ruth’s son–known as Stump–calls one “Momma” and the other “Aunt Idgie.” The whole town is perfectly aware of the situation, and no one seems to have a problem with it. Yet several years later, when Idgie is trying to get an almost-grown Stump to tell her why he hasn’t dated any girls, he says, “Well, I’m not weird or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.” This apparent double standard made my antenna perk up, so I did some digging–through history and an old textbook.
Prior to major industrialization, men and women moved within two “separate spheres”: the male sphere consisted of business, and the female sphere consisted of household chores and raising a family. Due to these separate spheres, most women’s circle of socialization contained only other women–whether it be their sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins, or female friends. An essay by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg* proposes that many of these connections were formed between women at young ages, were “intense, loving, and openly avowed…[and] despite subsequent marriages and geographic separation, continued throughout their lives.”
Smith-Rosenburg’s essay is full of primary documentation: letters between girls and women. Many of them are full of expressions that contemporary readers associate with love (“My dearest,” “My Beloved”). And all of this was apparently normal for the Victorian age–even with all its stereotypical prudery. Yet these women’s families–“all eminently respectable and socially conservative…considered such love both socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage.” From there the essay goes into territory that doesn’t really apply to Flagg’s novel, but it’s useful information. [If you’re interested, you can download a PDF version of the full article here.]
Ruth and Idgie do not, obviously, fit this model exactly–they are not merely pen pals and lovers (in the older sense of the word) until and beyond heterosexual relationships and marriage; they are a couple, in the true sense of the word. The Victorian age technically ended in 1901 with Queen Victoria’s death, but the moral code of rural Alabama was fairly unlikely to have changed by 1929. Therefore it is with apparent calmness that a relationship between two women was accepted in Whistle Stop.
It’s really the only double standard that leaned in the favor of women: male homosexuality (at least in American society) has almost always been looked down upon, or even despised. Which is why Stump assures his lesbian “Aunt Idgie” that he is “not weird,” just in case she would be worried by that possibility.
But like any good former AP English student, I may be reading too much into this–perhaps Idgie’s family and the entire town of Whistle Stop all just happened to be non-prejudiced individuals. Although the local sheriff does get upset when he discovers that Ruth and Idgie are serving food to “colored people” out of the back door of the café. Lots of interesting dichotomies.
The Review (cont’d.)
Love is the driving force behind many of the characters’ actions. Evelyn grows to love Ninny Threadgoode, and Ninny remembers the stories of her family because of love. It is Idgie’s love for Ruth that leads to all kinds of situations–some hysterical, and some truly awful.
The end of the book literally made my heart hurt. Mrs. Threadgoode’s unexpected death leaves Evelyn very much alone, and it is only two years later that she can bring herself to visit Mrs. Threadgoode’s grave.
While visiting the Whistle Stop Cemetery, Evelyn sees the graves of all the people whose story she has heard: William and Alice Threadgoode, Buddy Threadgoode, Albert Threadgoode, and Ninny and Cleo Threadgoode. On her way back to her car, she finds Ruth Jamison’s grave, on which is set a small vase of sweetheart roses and a card from “The Bee Charmer.” Evelyn looks around, but sees no one.
Meanwhile, several miles away, an old woman with a mischievous smile is giving away a free jar of honey to her eight year-old “millionth customer”…
This book is beautiful. I think that the reason I find it so wonderful is that it is a perfect example of how a story can change a person’s life. The reader sees Evelyn Couch transform from a meek, sad being into a powerfully angry woman. But as Mrs. Threadgoode’s story continues, Evelyn begins to see that she has to let go of her anger in order to be totally free. She has to stop worrying about who she has been told she “should” be, and what she has been told she “should” be satisfied with. This lesson is mirrored in Ruth Jamison–she runs away from her budding love with Idgie in order to marry Frank Bennett, a man every woman in town thinks she would be lucky to have. But soon Ruth, Evelyn, and the reader begin to see what happens when someone pursues goals that are not their own, in order to satisfy the ubiquitous “them.” In the end, both Ruth and Evelyn are saved by Idgie and the people of Whistle Stop.
If you’re a fan of hilarious but meaningful stories–especially with a dash of Southern flare–I highly suggest you read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. And if you’re not able to invest the reading time, I suggest you rent a copy of the film–Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy star as Evelyn and Ninny, and an amazing supporting cast is led by Mary Stuart Masterson (Idgie) and Mary-Louise Parker (Ruth). It’s a rare example of a movie adaptation’s living up to its novel predecessor.
*”The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America,” orig. published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (1975; pp. 1-30).
“Ruth, I wish you could have seen that big ox, down at the river for three days, drunk as a dog, crying like a baby, ’cause Joe, that old colored man that raised him, died. I swear, I don’t know what people are using for brains anymore. Imagine those boys: They’re terrified to sit next to a n***er and have a meal, but they’ll eat eggs that came right out of a chicken’s ass.” (p. 55)
“She even knew how she would kill herself. It would be with a silver bullet. As round and as smooth as an ice-cold blue martini. She would place the gun in the freezer for a few hours before she did it, so it would feel frosty and cold against her head. She could almost feel the ice-cold bullet shooting through her hot, troubled brain, freezing the pain for good. The sound of the gun blast would be the last sound she would ever hear. And then…nothing. Maybe just the silent sound that a bird might hear, flying in the clean, cool air, high above the earth. The sweet, pure air of freedom.” (p. 63)
“You mean to say you never came into the Valdosta barbershop in August of nineteen twenty-eight and had a heated conversation in which you threatened to kill Frank Bennett, a man you did not know?”
“That was me, all right. I thought you wanted to know if we had ever met, and the answer is no. I threatened to kill him, but we were never, what you might say, properly introduced.” (p. 339)
This book contains great examples of stories told within other stories. What’s your favorite story-within-a-story story?