The amusingly titled Fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop café offers a humourous narrative set in a small town in Alabama during the depression of the thirties. When I first saw this book, I must admit that I was expecting a difficult read, having previously had a poor track record with books set in the Southern states of America.
The book opens with a report from the equally eccentric Weems weekly, at the time that the aforementioned café had just opened. The book then continues to tell the story of Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgoode, who run the café, and that of the town itself. The narrative has been crafted from a range of different reports at the time, interleaved with the later personal reminiscences of Cleo Threadgoode. While this does offer a wide range of viewpoints, I found that it was confusing at first, especially with the large number of characters which are introduced in the early part of the story. Some of the reports also come out of sequence, especially in the later part of the book, which might also be confusing. However, while this format does, unfortunately, split up the narrative, the naturally short chapters make this more approachable than I was expecting. The overall effect is one of a surprisingly quick read.
Although there isnt a strong plot to the book, it nevertheless follows the life of Whistle Stop (an unusual name for a town even by American standards) from the opening of the eponymous café, to the eventual decline of the town occasioned by the closure of the railway station. Although it seems unusual that such a small town should have enjoyed such a comprehensive service, complete with sleeping cars and pullman trains, the closure of the station mirrored the damage that the Beeching cuts did to communities here in Britain. The Weems weekly remarked that "Now that we have lost most of our trains, we seem to be losing a lot of our old friends", making it clear that the railway was more than a form of transport, and provided Whistle Stop with employment and economic prosperity. Both of these must have been most welcome during the depression.
The real focus of the story, however, is the unusual relationship between Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgoode. Although I have some admiration for the character of Idgie, by all accounts she was rather unmanagable as a child and Ruth was the one that was able to make her more biddable. Quite how such a bond developed, especially in the conservative world of Alabama, it is hard to imagaine. Presumably, however, Idgie had realised that she was a lesbian even then. Of course, Ruth and Idgie very wisely did not use quite that word (this was Alabama, after all); even so, Im surprised that it was tolerated.
Some of my admiration for Idgie stems from her preparedness to go against the established social norms of the time, not only in her personal relationships, but also with regard to race. By our standards, and those of our time, this is a very racist book. However, I have read enough to know that, sadly, this was normal for Southern American states. Even by feeding the coloured people at the rear door to the café, Idgie risked provoking the wrath of the Klu Klux Klan, and the local sherrif, both powerful enemies. On one occasion she only got away with it because the rivalry between different branches of the Klan was apparently stronger.
Of course, Idgie, her unusual relationship and relative tolerance of coloured people at the café, might all be seen as manifestations of the authors humour. This is evident throughout the book, in the range of cultural interests catered for in Whistle Stop, and the quite unlikely events which happen there. Even without Idgie, there were meteorite strikes and gopher bites to keep them interested! Another example is, of course, Idgies running joke of directing potential purchasers of alcoholic liquor to the Reverend Scroggins. Again, I doubt that this would have gone down very well; they take religion very seriously in the Southern States!
In conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and found that the authors humour, together with the character of Idgie was sufficient to rescue what might otherwise yet another treatment of race relations in America. Of course, the coloured people do get a bad deal in this book, but that is arguably entirely realistic. That it seems so remarkable is a sign of how much has changed. I understand that there is also a film adaptation in which the blacks arent quite so unlucky. This might be more in keeping with modern norms, but the book is a more accurate representation of Alabama in the thirties.