Disclaimer: If a word’s in quotes, I’ve used it because the review demanded it. I know the term is/may be offensive but there’s no getting around it when writing about a book set in the past.
I’ve recently developed a fascination for books and movies set in the American South. I think it started a while ago with the sense of accomplishment I felt when I got through Gone With the Wind. Or perhaps I’m getting nostalgic about the time we lived in Texas. I’m a sucker for being called “honey” and saying y’all. Or maybe it’s not as much about the South as about books set in the good ol’ times when men were real men and women were real women* and while there were clearly classified “coloured” people and “white” people everyone just got along. (Ku Klux Klan who?) So when I was looking for a break from my Terry Pratchett marathon, I decided to read this book:
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a lovely, light, feel-good book. The story begins in the visitors’ lounge of eighty-six year old Mrs Threadgoode’s nursing home. Ninny Threadgoode strikes up a conversation (or launches a monologue, depends on how you look at it) with forty-eight year old Evelyn whose husband is visiting his mother. Evelyn listens politely but is not very interested in the old woman’s rambling. With every passing visit, however, Evenlyn is intrigued by Ninny’s stories and the friendship between the two women deepens.
Evelyn feels she’s “too old to be young and too young to be old”. She has always been a wife and mother and now with an empty nest she feels rootless. She tries to find comfort from friends et her high school reunion
But all the other women there were just as confused as she was, and held on to their husbands and their drinks to keep themselves from disappearing.
Evenlyn’s restlessness manifests in many ways including binge eating. Ninny on the other hand, is at peace with her life (and loves her candy) and during the course of their friendship, some of this peace spills over into Evelyn’s life.
Evelyn and Ninny’s relationship reminded me a bit of the friendship I shared with Nick, my old landlord. At one point when Ninny tells Evelyn she’s got half her life ahead of her I remembered how Nick said to me, “Why, you’re a baby!” when I felt quite old and worldly wise at twenty six. Old people make the best friends and old times have the best stories.
Ninny Threadgoode sure has some great stories to tell. However, the promise of an occasional murder notwithstanding, the plot is not the primary focus of the book. It’s the characters who gently draw you in as does the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Whistle Stop is like the little townships we have all over India with small populations, a single source of livelihood, and a single shop of each type. It’s a tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else.
Ruth and Idgie, as owners of the town’s lone cafe, are central figures in this community as is Dot Weems who works at the local post office and publishes regular newsletters with bits of local gossip. The town and its residents come to life with the author’s delightful prose.You can picture the railway tracks, the cafe, and the post office. You can easily visualize the little beauty shop, the grocery store, the Threadgoode house, and the “other side of the tracks”.
Through the various characters the book also highlights racial issues and how racial relations change with the times. Ninny’s stories portray “coloured” people as simple, child-like, and emotional – an attitude consistent with her time. Evelyn realizes at one point that she has never even met a black man. However, there are also people like Idgie (and Ruth) who are able to look beyond race and develop meaningful relationships with people based on who they are. Through Idgie’s idealistic lens we view the issues of race, abuse, societal norms, and social injustice.
As the book progressed I felt there were just too many characters and too many timelines. Somewhere around the middle of the book we have the current-day timeline, Ninny’s narration as well as the author’s narration of events past. It get’s a little confusing because let’s admit it, who really reads the titles of chapters? It’s good to imagine that every character had a story but not every story needs to be told or be so neatly wrapped up. I for one would have been just as happy not knowing who committed the murder.
I’m nit-picking now and I know it. Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Cafe is a refreshing and easy read. It has very real characters and a decent plot. It gives you something to think about but is not preachy. It’s not fashionable to make small towns seem endearing but Whistle Stop, viewed through the eyes of Ninny Threadgood could be my new happy place. If only the tomatoes weren’t fried in lard!
Overall rating: 4 stars. A recommended read.
* And we knew of no small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri