The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop
© 2020 Fannie Flagg
304 pages

One of my favorite movies growing up was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe: why on Earth this movie became a favorite in my very sheltered household, I cannot say; it was a story of a woman struggling to find a path forward for herself, of the interesting relationship between two women in the ’30s of Alabama, of Klansmen and murders and possibly cannibalistic barbecues — not exactly family friend stuff. I most loved it for the character of Imogene “Idgie” Threadgoode, whom I’d call an irrepressible tomboy if that didn’t feel like a disservice to her character; Idgie was no one to be boxed, labeled, and dismissed. I read the book that the movie was adapted from in high school, and recognized the story though I found its presentation in the book to be…fragmentary and disjointed. Fannie Flagg adopts that same odd style for its sequel, The Wonder Boy of Whistle-Stop.

If you’ve never encountered the book, or the movie, it’s two intertwined stories that intersect in the small town of Whistle Stop; of the extraordinary bond shared by two women, Idgie & Ruth, as they survive the death of the man who brought them together, Idgie’s brother and Ruth’s husband. — and become parents to Ruth’s son, as they run a cafe together, frustrated the Klan, and possibly kill a man. Their tale, unfolding in the thirties, is told decades later by Idgie’s sister-in-law Ninnie, who encounters a down-in-the-dumps woman (Evelyn Couch) and seeks to inspire her by Idgie’s example. (Now, I haven’t read the novel since high school, so it’s liable I’m mixing it with my impression of the movie.) Wonder Boy is a sequel in that it follows the lives of several Fried Green Tomato characters, chiefly Ruth’s son Bud and Idgie herself — but it also revisits the original story. Because of the fragmentary narrative style, we bound from 1930s Whistle Stop to 2009 Atlanta with the turn of a page, there and back again, going back and forth and seeing our main characters as they are and as they become; Bud as a small child, Idgie his doting aunt/co-mother; Bud as an old man with grandchildren, and Idgie a distant memory. I’ve watched the film so many times over the years that only a gentle stir was needed to bring everyone to life again. Frankly, I’d forgotten that Evelyn Couch was even in the original book, but here she plays a much more active role, no longer the spellbound hearer of Ninnie’s tale. In fact, she plays a lyinchpin role in the novel’s almost too-perfect ending, in which all the loose ends are tied up and every tear dries. It’s sweet to the point of saccharine, but sometimes there’s a need for that.

Those who are familiar with the characters and the story of the original book will find themselves right at home; it’s messy but fun, and filled with characters both known and loved. It’s left me wanting to revisit the original novel, and soon!

Incidentally, I recently paid a visit to the the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe. Unlike Whistle Stop, Irondale AL is not deserted; it has instead become a suburb of Birmingham. The cafe was run by three women in its original heyday, and is incredibly popular still today. I was there when the doors opened, and when I’d finished some of the best fried green tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, the line was out the door.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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