Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
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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. It 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 her youth in Whistle Stop, Alabama where her sister-in-law, Idgie, and her 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, and explores themes of family, aging, lesbianism, and the dehumanizing effects of racism on both blacks and whites.
Throughout the novel the narrator and time period change, and the reader relies on the chapters' headings to establish the date and the source of the chapter. Some of the narration comes in the form of the fictional newsletter called "The Weems Weekly"; other narrations come from the Couches' house in Birmingham, and omniscient narrations reveal still more. The framing story, set in the mid-1980s, depicts Evelyn Couch, who goes weekly with her husband to visit his mother in a nursing home. On one visit, Evelyn befriends Ninny Threadgoode, another resident of the same home, who tells Evelyn stories of her youth in Whistle Stop in the 1920s. Between subsequent visits, Evelyn assumes the protagonists of these stories as role models.
According to Ninny, she was an orphan raised by the Threadgoodes, and eventually married one of their sons; but the principal character throughout her story is the youngest daughter, Idgie (Imogene) Threadgoode: an unrepentant tomboy, became reclusive after her brother, Buddy, was killed on the railway. Ruth Jamison comes to live with the family while teaching at the Vacation Bible School. Idgie gradually becomes enamored of her and is saddened when Ruth leaves Whistle Stop to marry Frank Bennett. Frank turns out to be a violent, abusive man who often beats Ruth. She remains faithful to Frank until her mother's death. Subsequently, Ruth sends Idgie a message, and Idgie, along with several others, rescue her. Intimidated by Big George, the family's handyman and café cook, Frank does not resist.
With money from her father, Idgie establishes the Whistle Stop Cafe, with Sipsey (George's adoptive mother) and her daughter-in-law Onzell as cooks, and becomes secondary guardian to Ruth's son, Buddy Jr. (known as 'Stump' after losing an arm in an accident). The café quickly became known to hobos all over the U.S. during The Great Depression as a welcome place to find a meal. The most recurrent is 'Smokey Lonesome' Phillips, who secretly loves Ruth. When Ruth dies of cancer, Idgie is heartbroken.
After the railroad yard closes, the cafe (and ultimately the town) ceases operation. Several years later, Idgie and Big George are arrested for Frank Bennett's murder; but the case is dismissed when the local minister, repaying Idgie for helping his son, testifies (falsely) that she and Big George were at a three-day revival when Frank Bennett went missing. Bennett's body was never found, but it is later revealed that Sipsey killed him when he attempted to claim his and Ruth's son. His remains were barbecued by George and fed to the detectives investigating Frank's disappearance. Stump recounts the stories of his guardians to his daughter and granddaughter; Big George's sons, Jasper and Artis [sic], have their own careers: Jasper as a Sleeping Car Porter, and Artis as a gambler.
Inspired by these stories, Evelyn starts selling Mary Kay Cosmetics and, at Mrs. Threadgoode's urging, is treated for menopause and confronts various long-held fears. Evelyn becomes happier. While on vacation, she receives a letter from Mrs. Hartman, Mrs. Threadgoode's neighbor, that Mrs. Threadgoode has died and left various trinkets for Evelyn. The novel's conclusion reveals that Idgie and her brother Julian, after Whistle Stop became depopulated, operated a roadside food-stand.
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. In the film adaptation Ruth had been in love with Buddy Threadgoode, Idgie's brother.
The novel also uses Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode's characters to examine women's aging. Throughout the novel we see Evelyn going through menopause as well as Mrs. Threadgoode's deterioration in old age. As the novel follows Sipsey's family, it analyzes the stark challenges they and other African Americans faced within their lives throughout society, from the 1920s to the late 1980s. The moral justifications of murder and euthanasia are also touched upon.
Memories and storytelling are discussed heavily in the novel.
The "Whistle Stop Cafe" is loosely based on the Irondale Cafe in Irondale, Alabama, a suburb near Flagg's birthplace. The cafe was bought by Flagg's aunt, Bess Fortenberry, in 1932 and run by herself and two friends for four decades. 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.
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