Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
First edition cover
|August 12, 1987|
|LC Class||PS3556.L26 F7 1987|
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a 1987 novel by Fannie Flagg. Flagg's novel weaves together the past and the present through the blossoming friendship between Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman who lives in a nursing home. Every week Evelyn visits Ninny, who tells her stories about memories of her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama where her sister-in-law Idgie and Idgie's friend Ruth ran a café. These stories, along with Ninny's friendship, enable Evelyn to begin a new, satisfying life while allowing the people and stories of Ninny's youth to live on. The book was also made into a movie.
Throughout the novel the narrator and time period changes. The reader relies on the chapter-opening visuals in order to establish the date and the source of the chapter. Some of the narration comes in the form of the fictional newspaper in Whistle Stop, Alabama called "The Weems Weekly." Other narrations come from the Couches' house in Birmingham, and finally, other narrations fill in some of the more intimate details of the characters mentioned in the various stories.
The story jumps between two time periods. The framing story, set in the mid-1980s, concerns Evelyn Couch, who goes weekly with her husband to visit his mother in a nursing home. Even though the mother-in-law and Evelyn dislike one another, Evelyn still makes the trip. On one visit, Evelyn meets Ninny Threadgoode, another resident of the same home. Ninny begins to tell Evelyn stories from her life growing up in Whistle Stop in the 1920s, which is the second time period. As the novel advances, Ninny and Evelyn develop a lasting friendship. Evelyn also learns from the characters she meets in Ninny's stories.
Ninny is taken in by the Threadgoodes, and grew up in the bustling house of the Threadgoode family; she eventually married one of the Threadgoode brothers, Cleo. However, her first love was young Buddy Threadgoode, whose closest sibling was the youngest girl, Idgie (Imogene) Threadgoode. An unrepentant tomboy, Idgie learned her charm from Buddy and the two of them were inseparable. Young Idgie became devastated when Buddy was hit by a train and died. For a long time after Buddy's death, Idgie kept away from her house; only Big George, one of her family’s black workers, knew where she was. Nothing could get Idgie to come home or act like more of a lady until a few summers later when the virtuous Ruth Jamison came to live with the family while she taught at the Vacation Bible School. The family and servants watched with amusement as Idgie fell head-over-heels in love with Ruth, but when Ruth went home to Georgia to marry a man she was promised to, once more, Idgie left home.
Then several years later, shortly after Ruth's mother died of an illness, Idgie received a page torn from the Bible. The page was from the Book of Ruth (appropriately Ruth 1:16, "But Ruth said, 'Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.'"), and was sent to the Threadgoode house. Idgie believed to be a sign that Ruth was being abused by her husband, Frank Bennett. Idgie then decided that she was going to rescue Ruth and bring her back to her house. She, Big George, her two brothers, and two friends went to Georgia to get Ruth. Intimidated by Big George, Frank did little more than protest before the group left with Ruth (who turned out to be pregnant). Papa Threadgoode gave Idgie money to start a business so that she could care for Ruth and their son. Idgie used the money to buy the Whistle stop Cafe in which Sipsey, her daughter-in-law Onzell, and Big George (who was married to Onzell) worked.
Idgie and Ruth used the money they made at the café to raise Buddy Junior, or "Stump," who had lost his arm in a railroad accident. The café quickly became known all over the U.S. during The Great Depression due to the communication between various hobos who visited there while passing through town. One of these hobos was half-time Whistle Stop resident Smokey Lonesome who became a part of the café family. The café had a reputation for feeding men who were down on their luck. Idgie and Ruth even created controversy when they decided to serve black customers from the back door of the cafe. Around the same time, Georgia detectives stopped by to investigate the disappearance of Ruth’s husband.
Through Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories, Evelyn begins to question the purpose of her life. She also begins to come to the realization that her reasons behind caring about other people's opinions while growing up, are pointless. When Evelyn’s efforts to reconnect with her husband are ignored, she looks to Idgie’s story and becomes inspired by Idgie's boldness and audacity. Evelyn then creates an alter-ego named Towanda, an angry, hyper-violent, Amazon-like character who lashes out at people. Then, as she becomes more self-confident, she begins to feel uneasy by how much satisfaction she feels at lashing out, and confesses this to Mrs. Threadgoode. Evelyn gets a job with Mary Kay Cosmetics and, at Mrs. Threadgoode's suggestion, starts to take hormones for menopause. She becomes happier than she ever has been.
For years the cafe ran, through World War II and into the 1950s. Ruth's son grew up, and the lives of the town members moved on. However, when Ruth died of cancer, life went out of the cafe and the railroad gradually became replaced by other more modern transportation. Several years later, Idgie herself was arrested along with Big George, for the murder of Frank Bennett, after his car was found at the bottom of a lake outside of Whistle Stop. The case is dismissed at the trial when the local minister, repaying Idgie for helping his son, lied on the stand, testifying that she and Big George were at a three-day revival the weekend Frank Bennett went missing. Bennett's body was never found, but it is revealed toward the end of the novel that when he stole into the cafe to kidnap Ruth's infant son, Sipsey killed him with a cast iron skillet. While Big George barbecued the body, Sipsey buried Frank’s head in the Threadgoodes' garden. The "barbecue" was then served to the Georgia detectives investigating Frank’s disappearance. They rave that it is the best barbecue they have ever had.
Evelyn, having gained a new outlook on life, goes to The Lodge (which she paid for with money she made selling cosmetics) in order to lose weight. Her husband forwards her mail while she is away, and she receives a letter from Mrs. Hartman, Mrs. Threadgoode's neighbor, who writes that Mrs. Threadgoode has died, but that she left something for Evelyn. The ending of the novel reveals that some of the characters from Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories are still alive.
The relationship between Idgie and Ruth is accepted by the entire town of Whistle Stop. Although it is not explicitly labeled as a lesbian relationship, every resident both knows about and accepts Idgie and Ruth's relationship, making lesbianism a theme in the novel. However, the relationship in the film has been altered. In the film adaptation Ruth had been in love with Buddy Threadgoode. The movie implies that Ruth never got over his death.
The novel also uses Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode's characters as a way to examine women's aging. Throughout the novel we see Evelyn going through menopause as well as Mrs. Threadgoode's deterioration due to her old age.
Another important aspect is the history of African American lives from the 1920s to the late 1980s as the novel follows Sipsey's family.
Dying and accepting death is another theme throughout the novel. Buddy, Ruth, her husband Frank and Ninny are just some of the main characters who die in the course of the story in very different ways. The moral justification for Murder and Euthanasia are also touched upon.
The "Whistle Stop Cafe" is loosely based on the Irondale Cafe in Irondale, Alabama, a suburb near Flagg's birthplace. It is still in operation and, like the fictional cafe, is known for its fried green tomatoes.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe spent 36 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Harper Lee gave a recommendation for the book, saying, "Airplanes and television have removed the Threadgoodes from the Southern scene. Happily for us, Fannie Flagg has preserved a whole community of them in a richly comic, poignant narrative that records the exuberance of their lives, the sadness of their departure. Idgie Threadgoode is a true original: Huckleberry Finn would have tried to marry her!"
Flagg's novel was turned into a film adaptation. The film was called Fried Green Tomatoes, and was released in 1991. The film adaptation is a story within a story of Southern female friendship and love.
- Pete Gray one-armed baseball player, perhaps known as Buddy Junior in the book
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