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The Whole Town’s Talking

March 3, 2017

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2017 10:17 pm

    Oh, well. From your description I could see this book appealing to a lot of readers. Not you,though, and probably not to me. I did enjoy Fried Green Tomatoes. Even tried making them. You be surprised to know how hard it is to get green tomatoes in the Bay Area.

    • March 5, 2017 2:09 pm

      As a person who grew up in southern Missouri and Arkansas, I’m not that surprised to hear that it’s hard to get any kind of tomato in an area that doesn’t usually get a succession of days over 80 degrees F. That’s what tomatoes need.
      I grew tomatoes, even in the short growing season of Ohio, until the deer started eating my plants down to the root, even when I started planting them in pots right outside the (usually open) windows of the house, accessible only by the stairs on our deck. They still ate them down to the roots, so I gave up. The only people I know who can raise tomatoes now are those with dogs and fences.
      Anyway, I like them a lot better ripe than fried and green, and I did enjoy Flagg’s most famous and popular book.

  2. March 6, 2017 4:56 pm

    Oh well. At first I thought you were going to tell a story about your large stacks of library books and how they have gotten people talking! 😀

    • March 6, 2017 5:15 pm

      Ha! Our timid cats show us that we don’t have people over often enough, and the ones who do come know us so well that they are entirely unsurprised by stacks of books at any size.

  3. Lisa permalink
    September 23, 2017 11:02 pm

    I enjoyed the book, but did not like the ending at all. Having the people turn into birds and bugs, etc was a little too weird and didn’t seem to fit in with the story at all.

    • September 26, 2017 8:56 am

      The ending definitely could have been better integrated.

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