As part of our 30th-anniversary tribute to the film classic, Fried Green Tomatoes, Katusha Jin reflects on Fannie Flagg’s best-selling novel (the source of her Oscar-nominated screenplay).
In 1987, actress, comedian, and prolific author Fannie Flagg penned and published one of her best-known novels, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Her book was a huge commercial success. Its popularity landed it on The New York Times bestseller list for over six months, and it was adapted for the big screen to much acclaim in 1991 (leading to Oscar nominations for Flagg and her co-writer Carol Sobieski).
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’s plot bounces back and forth between the 1920s and 1980s, with two main storylines told through the relationships between two pairs of women. In the “present” mid-80s time period, Evelyn Couch and Virginia “Ninny” Threadgoode meet every Sunday at a Birmingham, Alabama nursing home. (Evelyn has been left to fend for herself while her husband Ed visits with his mother.) In the earlier decades, Imogene “Idgie” Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison open the eponymous cafe. (Located next to a railroad stop just outside of Birmingham, the cafe quickly becomes a cozy meet-up spot for all their neighbors.)
Flagg kicks off her story by introducing Evelyn, a conventional housewife who has just reached the “empty nest” phase of life. Sitting alone in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home lounge, Evelyn is easy prey for Ninny (Rose Terrace’s most voluble resident). But as the weeks go by, Evelyn begins to look forward to Ninny’s stories about the vibrant residents of the Whistle Stop Cafe community.
To help bring this fictional town to life, Flagg scatters inserts from The Weems Weekly—a newsletter written by the lady who runs the local post office —telling readers “in real-time” about current happenings (a clever way to keep us engaged as we navigate the non-linear timeline progression).
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is filled to the brim with complex characters who come to life on the page. The detail with which Flagg adorns dialogue gives each individual a liveliness, and I couldn’t help but hear them speak as my eyes glided over the words. Flagg attributes this skill to her dyslexia; as someone who finds it very difficult to read and write, she has trained herself to listen very carefully. When writing the book, Flagg says she would hear her characters speaking to her, which is what makes every page so believable.
According to Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is loosely based on the life of her mother’s sister — an aunt who once owned a cafe in a rural town that seemed far away from her own urban life in Birmingham (Alabama’s largest city). As a child, Flagg would often accompany her mother on visits to her aunt at the cafe. It is there that the future author saw what it meant to be surrounded by a community where “everyone seemed so happy” and “everyone knows you and your family.” She missed the friendliness of these southerners and wanted to share the importance of feeling embraced by a healthy community.
Even so, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is hardly a “vanilla” book about a happy-go-lucky place where everyone gets on with everyone else. This setup is merely the bones on which the novel is able to explore many of the controversial issues relevant to its own time.
As a reader, I can’t help but draw comparisons between the expectations of southern women in 20th century Alabama, versus what it means to be a woman in a much more interconnected 21st-century world. Flagg helped me orient myself by making Evelyn’s evolution the fulcrum of her story. I saw every described event and got to know all the characters through her eyes. This innate connection I felt with Evelyn made her initial sense of defeat, her journey towards recovery, and her monumental realizations all the more powerful. I saw myself, and many other women I know, in Evelyn.
Evelyn Couch is a middle-aged housewife approaching her 50s. She is insecure and shy, and she has numerous fears (especially about doctors and hospitals). She feels betrayed and disappointed by a world in which — for all her 48 years of life — she has tried so hard to be “good.” All alone with her dark thoughts and grief-stricken circumstances, Evelyn falls into depression and doesn’t know how to move forward.
As a woman who has lived her life obeying gender norms, Evelyn’s experiences are relatable enough that they could be used to describe the midlife crises of many middle-aged women today. Far beyond the borders of America, there are many cultures in which women are still expected to follow the lead of their husbands. Slowly waking up from her deep slumber, Evelyn—through her growing friendship with Ninny—begins to question why she has imposed such severe restrictions on herself. In Ninny’s tales, Idgie is always so bold, outspoken and unconventional, so why has Evelyn allowed societal expectations of women to instill such stifling terror in her heart?
Beyond Evelyn’s step-by-step progression towards self-emancipation as a woman, I was intrigued by how Flagg approaches controversial topics such as gender norms, racism, colorism, and domestic violence.
With respect to sex and gender, Flagg’s characters are certainly aware of the negative connotations of having a son who turns out to be gay, but she is more oblique about the relationship between Idgie and Ruth. Their love for one another is never explicitly described as a lesbian partnership, but there was no doubt in my mind about it. Idgie is an especially complex character, someone who might have been called a “tomboy” in a world where there were no concepts like trans, non-binary and/or gender-nonconforming.
With respect to race relations, there is a great deal for politically sensitive readers to take issue with, such as how residents of a small southern town deal with the fact that the members of the Ku Klux Klan who live among them are never confronted. But Flagg differentiates between the white men who join out of willful ignorance (primarily to feel part of the local “cool kids” clique), and those who actively participate in—and even thirst for—violent hate crimes.
This apparent tolerance on Flagg’s part will surely startle the modern-day reader though, so it’s important to see Flagg’s novel as a product of its time. The people who thrived in the Whistle Stop Cafe lived most of their lives prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and way before gay rights activists could begin to speak up without fear about their safety in the 1980s. Overall, the town is generally shown as an accepting place and quite progressive relative to southern society as a whole. Despite protests from some of the White customers, the Whistle Stop Cafe always serves Black customers for cheaper prices (albeit through the back door), and everyone in town cheers for the mysterious “Robin Hood” figure who throws extra provisions from the train as it passes through the Black neighborhood during the Great Depression.
One incident indicative of change over time centers on “Clarissa Peavey,” great-granddaughter “Sipsey Peavey” and granddaughter of “Big George” and “Onzell Peavey” (all of whom are Black employees at the cafe). Due to her light skin, Clarissa is able to ride on “Whites Only” elevators without being noticed and receives “White” treatment from passersby. One day, while shopping, Clarissa is spotted by her uncle Artis (who is much darker than she is). Afraid of being found out, Clarissa ignores him, which results in Artis being thrown out of the department store for supposedly harassing her.
Unfortunately, this scene is a gem that is particularly relevant today. Colorism exists in so many minority communities in the USA, as well as in so many countries beyond the USA. It is especially blatant when looking at advertisements for beauty products. In Asia, no one would blink an eye at the idea of buying whitening cream. The connection between light skin and beauty is ingrained in many cultures, and it definitely affects marriage opportunities. (In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Onzell’s family is outraged when she decides to marry Big George.) The preferential treatment of the White race over other races is still very prevalent in many African and Asian countries, whether it is for employment or social status.
Flagg’s novel may be set in the 20th century, but there are still many lessons that we can learn from her characters today. Community and its importance to our mental health have always been a key driver of the story for Flagg. Yet beyond the intertwining stories of the life of a southern town and its people before, during, and after the Great Depression, lie the struggles faced by women across different ages and races. One woman has an abusive husband. One woman has a child on the spectrum. One woman marries a man much darker than she is. One woman hides her race. One woman is in love with another woman. One woman is approaching the end of her life. One woman has never learned to acknowledge her own needs. One woman even summons the courage to attack a drunk who is about to abduct a baby.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is about love, loss, friendship, and most of all bravery in understanding what it means to be a woman. It serves as a great escape from the present and a reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
© Katusha Jin (5/3/21) – Special for FF2 Media® LLC
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is available in print, on Kindle & as an Audiobook!