Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
© 1987 Fannie Flagg
“You know, a heart can be broken, but it keeps on beating, just the same.”
Evelyn Couch is too young to feel this old. Despairing and lonely, she sits by herself in a nursing home waiting room as her husband (who generally ignores her, unless dinner’s late) dotes on his mother, and takes solace in a purse full of candy bars. But then the little old lady on the couch starts talking, and Evelyn and the reader are transported to another time, to a small town in rural Alabama, where once a man was murdered and two women faced off against the Klan.
I read this book for the first time in high school, having watched the movie inspired by it several times, and I was glad at the time that I’d experienced them in that order. The movie has a straightforward narrative (Ninnie Threadgoode telling the story of Ruth & Idgie and their café to Evelyn in a series of flashbacks), while the while the book is more….creative, shall we say, with traditional narrative scenes mixing it up with newsletters from Whistle Stop and flashback chapters that don’t necessarily follow the right order. It’s as if Ninnie tells us stories as they come to mind. Through the bits and pieces the story emerges; we meet Idgie, Ruth, Sipsey, and countless others; we watch them through the Depression and War, standing at their side during tragedy, heartbreak, and joy alike. We love and hate with them, and when the cops come looking for a man we know needed killing, we’re in the same boat as most of the town: not knowing what happened, but not caring that he’s dead beyond the consequences for Idgie and Ruth.
At the core of Fried Green Tomatoes are Idgie and Ruth. Idgie is a dynamite character in her own regard; I’ve never met anyone else in fiction quite like her. Imagine if Huck Finn was a girl* and you’ll be on the right track to understanding Idgie: she was a tomboy, a prankster, a spinner of tall tales, an absolute hellion who never backed down from a fight or let go of someone she loved. That includes Ruth, who came to Whistle Stop to teach and was as demure and sweet as Idgie was loud and belligerent. The two formed an unlikely bond, one that Idgie’s relations teased her for; Idgie’s fascination with Ruth made the newcomer the only person who could rein the wild child in, and their relationship makes the novel, creating as it does the opportunity for the Whistle Stop Café that becomes the center of the community. TTheir relationship is ambiguous, not because they don’t have an obvious bond but because the exact nature of that bond is not thrown onto a table and dissected for the reader. This is a love story but not necessarily a romance story, and what Flagg keeps hidden makes the two all the more compelling to read about. Flagg does a good job of communicating how complicated people and their relationships can be, even beyond Idgie & Ruth. (Grady, one of my favorite secondary characters, can be likable or unlikable depending on what he’s doing, as he’s frequently conflicted between his affection for people and his sense of What Ought to be Done. )
Although there’s so many more things I should/could be reading than revisiting a story I know by heart anyway, I’m glad I picked it up again. There’s a great deal to appreciate about a book like this, beyond the reader finding a vicarious sense of belonging by learning the story of these people and their cafe — as Evelyn does, before she starts fully living her own life. For female readers, for instance, I imagine there’s a great deal of appeal in it being about two strong relationships wherin women save one another. It’s a genuine southern classic with an enduring attraction for me, as oddly-presented as it is.
[*] There’s a version of the book with a blurb from Harper Lee stating that Idgie is the kind of girl Huck Finn would try to marry. I’m inordinately pleased to recognized the two characters’ commonalities, but I don’t think either Idgie or Huck was the marrying kind!