The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop
© 2020 Fannie Flagg
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.