Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of "The Whole Town's Talking" by Fannie Flagg

"The Whole Town's Talking" is the story of a Missouri farm town and its quirky, loving, loyal, sometimes shiftless - or even greedy and amoral - inhabitants. The book spans the years from 1889 to 2021, during which the world changes dramatically.

I'll provide some vignettes, to give you a feel for the story:

In 1889, Lordor Nordstrom leaves Sweden for the United States. During his travels, Lordor finds a large tract of good, rich land in Missouri, and starts a dairy farm. An ad in Swedish-American newspapers attracts other young farming families, and Swede Town is established.

Single women are scarce in Swede Town, and Lordor advertises for a mail-order bride. Katrina - a pretty Swedish girl living in Chicago - answers the ad, and eventually comes to visit. At a box social to welcome Katrina, shoebox dinners are auctioned off, and each box's winner gets to eat with the woman who prepared it. The boxes usually go for a dime, but - as a joke - all the men bid on Katrina's dinner, and Lordor ends up paying $10.65 to dine with the woman he hopes to marry. And Lordor and Katrina DO wed, settle down, and have a family.

The people in the farming community depend on each other. The women share advice about cooking and child-rearing; the men barter crops and help each other construct buildings; there are communal feasts; etc. So when a mooching, do-nothing couple has been around for a couple of years, the townsfolk enact a plan. The idlers are invited to dinner and - while they're eating - the rest of the community dismantles their house and packs their wagon. The lazy couple takes off, never to be seen again. LOL

In the early 1900s the growing town is renamed Elmwood Springs. By now it sports a general store, blacksmith, and grocery - as well as a one-room schoolhouse where Miss Lucille Beemer - barely past 18 years of age - instructs the students. Gustav, a young man who's in love with Miss Beemer, repeats the 8th grade three times to be near her.....and I won't say more because of spoilers.

When the citizens of Elmwood Springs die, they're buried in Still Meadows Cemetery, located on a hill near town. However, the residents of Still Meadows aren't as gone as you might think. Their 'spirits' can still converse with each other, and see and hear people who visit the cemetery. Thus, the dead folk keep up with what's happening in town - and in the world. As the book unfolds, many citizens of Elmwood Springs pass away, but they continue to converse and gossip from the grave.

Katrina and Lordor's daughter Ingrid - a first generation American girl - means to have a career. In 1922, she applies to Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine as 'I. Nordstrom' and is accepted. When the school's director realizes I. Nordstrom is a woman, he plans to get rid of her - but the director's wife has other ideas, enforced with a stalk of celery. Ingrid is admitted. (Yay!)

As time passes, the population of Elmwood Springs increases, and more businesses and restaurants open. Couples court and marry, and - as in real life - some unions work better than others. Miss Elner Knott marries little Will Shimfissle - and is very happy - singing to her chickens, making fig preserves, and being a friend to everyone. Elner even prepares breakfast for Bonnie and Clyde - whom she thinks are newlyweds - when they get lost near her farm. On the other hand, poor Tot Whooten is saddled with an alcoholic husband and two shiftless children who sponge off her all their lives. To make things worse, Tot makes a living as a hairdresser - though she's terrible at the job. Elner's and Tot's stories are touching and humorous.

There isn't much crime in Elmwood Springs, but when a Peeping Tom raises his sneaky head in 1937, the Town Council lays a trap. A shiny new quarter, with a tiny spot of red nail polish, is placed near a favorite peeping spot. When 15-year-old Lester Shingle plunks down the quarter for a dozen donuts.....well, lets's just say he reforms his ways.

The narrative periodically shifts to Still Meadows Cemetery, where the dead residents discuss current events - such as WWII, the moon landing, cheating spouses, etc. - gleaned from newly arrived dead as well as visitors to the cemetery. Every now and then, a spirit disappears from Still Meadows forever, but no one knows how or why.

A troubling occurrence in Elmwood Springs involves Miss Hannah Marie Swenson, a beautiful dairy farm heiress who's been deaf from birth. When Hannah goes to college she meets handsome Michael Vincent, and brings him home for a visit. Hannah's dad is wary of Michael, but Hannah is smitten, and the couple have the biggest wedding Elmwood Springs has ever seen. Unfortunately, Michael isn't what he seems.....(and you'll have to read the book to know more).

In 1986, the Elmwood Springs High School band has an adventure. The band wins a competiton and is invited to march in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The band families put on a slew of events - including bake sales, chicken dinners, garage sales, book sales, and car washes - to raise money for new uniforms, new majorette outfits, and new instruments. Finally, the band bus - carrying the kids, their chaperones, and beautician Tot Whooten (to do the girls' hair) - is off to New York. The band checks into a motel on Thanksgiving Eve.....and the next morning, the bus is gone - lock, stock, uniforms, instruments, and hairdressing equipment!

By custom, obituaries printed in the Elmwood Springs newspaper mention cause of death. But Verbena's passing is a delicate subject, because her toilet exploded and launched itself - and Verbena - through the ceiling. The death notice uses terms like 'fluke' and 'tragic household accident', but everyone soon learns the real story. (Ha ha ha)

Towards the end of the century, the town of Elmwood Springs begins to decline as a Walmart is built outside town, a mall opens, residents pass away, etc. - and the book winds down. However, the epilogue - dated 2021 - updates us about the spirits from Still Meadows Cemetery, and it's a memorable tale.

There are many more anecdotes in the book, about people who are charming, sweet, grouchy, horrible, and so on. Some of their exploits are compelling and some aren't - and I got bored at times. Moreover, the sheer number of characters, as one generation follows another and new residents move to town, is confusing and difficult to follow. That said, fans of Fannie Flagg - who know the characters from other books - might love this story.

Rating: 3 stars

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