He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

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