September 2017 The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg
blog by Cindy Bushey
For an entertaining romp through the 20th century, try The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg. Zion’s book club members came together this month to commence another year of expanding their reading horizons, and Ms. Flagg’s novel was our September selection. Known for her classic Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café which appeared in theaters in the early 1990’s, as well as her television comedy career, the author’s southern charm, down home perspective, and belly-laughing humor find fertile ground among the residents of fictional Elmwood Springs, Missouri. She traces the founding of the town in the late 1890’s by Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom, an upright and industrious dairy farmer. Among his fellow immigrants, he is a natural leader lacking only a wife to complete his existence, a deficit his neighbors’ wives are only too happy to help him fill by advertising for a bride. The letters he exchanges with future wife Katrina perfectly capture the writers’ shyness and anxiety and were a highlight for at least one of our readers.
As Lorder’s family and town grow, we inevitably met more characters until it became difficult to remember which branch of what family was experiencing and reacting to inevitable changes in their world. One of our readers suggested a couple pages of family trees would not have come amiss. However, each character had their own personal idiosyncrasies and quirks, and it was entertaining, eye-opening, and somewhat nostalgic at times to be reminded of the impacts made by the Chicago World’s Fair, the advent of the automobile and airplane, one room schoolhouses, World War I, World War II, Elvis, Vietnam, disco, big box stores, and the new millennium on small towns. Certainly, Elmwood Springs’ residents all had opinions about every event or invention and did not mind sharing! Some characters elicited our readers’ sympathy (Hannah Marie’s deafness), some our admiration (Elner Shimfissle), and some our laughter (Verbena’s exploding toilet). And if it all seemed a little “Waltons-esque” as one reader said, or we tired of all the “happy talk” as another described it, the book definitely let its readers escape the grit, incivility, and disreputable behavior blasting at us from today’s media. And just when we had lost sight of the hint of mystery in the prologue, Ms. Flagg hit us between the eyes with a surprise!
Normally, the perception of cemeteries is one of peace and serenity marred on occasion by regrettable vandalism or natural occurrences such as fallen trees or the sound of lawn mowers. Generally, quiet reigns supreme broken by sporadic visits from loved ones who quickly leave to resume their bustling lives. Not so in Elmwood Springs! Thanks to the beneficence and altruism of Lordor Nordstrom, the residents had a lovely cemetery for their last resting place and, wonder of wonders, could still see and hear what their new arrivals and faithful visitors told them about the town. Their opinions did not die with them and were still forcefully expressed. Enjoying each other’s company and keeping track of their descendants and former neighbors caused caustic and hilarious observations. What a unique way to tie generations together. Who hasn’t wished they could talk one more time to a parent, grandparent, or other family member. This time to reconnect was limited, however, for suddenly voices would fall silent and those remaining would know that the dear departed had truly done so.
Our readers found that art imitated life in Elmwood Springs. Misfortune, dishonesty, murder, and the gradual decline of a once bustling town played out on the pages of this book. The plot held together, and the author mostly reined in her over-the-top tendencies. Only when she allowed true personages to appear on the pages did she falter a bit. Harry and Bess Truman and Bonnie and Clyde evidently had connections to townspeople, and it appeared the author also liberally borrowed characters from other sources. One reader found an uncanny resemblance between Hannah Marie’s evil husband and the character of Dan Draper from Mad Men. There were distinct echoes of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion in the varied characters and town events. While some readers felt the novel lacked great dramatic scenes, small town life is generally composed of small dramas. Had the author wished to dwell on battlefield death details or a certain decade or event, the storyline would have been entirely different.
This was a fictional town grounded in actual events but allowing for segues into fantasy. Once our readers had accepted the dead were not actually gone from Elmwood Springs, it was not too difficult for most of us to follow the author’s last fantastic jump to the cemetery’s missing characters emerging in other life forms to enjoy the natural beauty of the world and its inventions from other perspectives. These perspectives were often tied to hobbies and interests of the late residents, but their newly found “bodies” did raise some theological questions among our readers. Moving into what humans would consider lower life forms (such as animals or weeds) did not seem to agree with any known religious belief even though it evidently gave the characters great joy. This move into the fantasy arena appeared contrived to some readers who wondered if the author was just hastily finishing the book, having run afoul of a deadline. It also did not fulfill the potential and character development evident at the beginning of the story. Nevertheless, even the unsettling ending could not detract from the enjoyment Mrs. Flagg’s humor and understanding of the human condition brought to her readers. Whether learning that railroad companies advertised at Ellis Island and sold tickets to far off destinations in the Midwest, chuckling over the derailment of Lordor’s wedding night by a hungry pig, or laughing at Tot Whooten’s trials and tribulations, the author touched our funnybones, our minds, and our hearts. Her characters bore resemblances to our own family members or friends, reminded us how many changes our parents had witnessed in their lifetimes, and gently allowed us to appreciate the humor and pitfalls of conversation in this era of texting and social media. Oh, and it entertained us. Not bad accomplishments for a flawed novel. It hit the right notes with a majority of our readers, 10 giving 1 thumb up, 4 being neutral, and only 1 giving it one thumb down. If you enjoy Fannie Flagg and Elmwood Springs, she has written other novels also set in that location. Next month, Zion’s book club leaves the light-hearted and tackles a more serious novel, Word of Honor, by Nelson DeMille, about a man’s harrowing experience in the Vietnam war and how it affects his life.