The Whole Town’s Talking
On my last trip to the library, I checked out a more-than-usually-enormous stack of books hoping to find some good escapism. I tried Fannie Flagg’s new novel The Whole Town’s Talking, thinking maybe it might have a little of the flavor of Fried Green Tomatoes or an interesting view on Missouri, where I grew up. It had neither.
In the first hundred pages, I got interested in the story of Lordor Nordstrom, a Swedish farmer, and his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, who came to Missouri from Chicago. But when they die, the novel begins a strange story line about them talking to each other in the graveyard, where they alternately “sleep,” talk to each other, and learn about what’s happening in the town from relatives who come to visit their graves.
After that I was amused by the preposterous story of Elner Knott, who was so kind that Bonnie and Clyde didn’t rob her town’s bank and President and Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to her when they came through town. Elner’s story becomes the one that links all the others, and obviously she is the author’s favorite character: “Elner believed that sometimes, something living to take care of was the best medicine for a broken heart.”
The novel bogs down in attempts to sum up each decade of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled “The Thirties” begins:
“By 1930, the Great Depression had hit the country hard. Elmwood Springs, still being somewhat of a rural town, survived it better than most….As usual, in Elmwood Springs, there were more weddings and more babies born; thankfully, in that order.”
Some of the characters start to be types, rather than people:
“Norvaleen Whittle had always been a little chubby….Then one day, while she was shopping at Walmart, she suddenly noticed that when she walked, she was swaying from side to side like a great big ocean liner. It was the first time Norvaleen realized that she was a big, fat person.”
By the 1950’s, Elner’s sister Ida begins to write a column in the local newspaper entitled “The Whole Town’s Talking,” which tells, rather than shows, the events of the day.
And when Ida’s niece, Hanna Marie, comes along, the characters become even more one dimensional, with the rich child Hanna becoming a saint and her husband–born at the same time to a poor family in Chicago–growing into a dastardly villain.
By the last third, the novel reflects the fact that the author is thinking about getting old and facing the prospect of death. One of her characters says
“The funny thing was I didn’t feel old inside. I remember how I used to feel about old people. I could never imagine them as young…but it’s a different story when you’re on the other end.”
The last straw is the epilogue, when all the town’s inhabitants, who have been happily chattering away at each other in the graveyard (minus one or two who mysteriously disappeared) get reincarnated and have this conversation:
“’I just wonder where we will go after we have been every living thing on earth.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it too much,’ said the four-leaf clover (who used to be a science teacher in Akron, Ohio). ‘That process will take trillions of years, and…there are over eight million species of fish alone, not to mention all the insects.’
‘I was a flea once,’ offered a small grub passing by.’”
This novel does offer escapism of a sort, but it’s the kind that elderly authors can enjoy, not their readers.