As A Written Leaf: Fried Green Tomatoes

By: Elyanna Saperstien  |  November 1, 2020

By Elyanna Saperstein, Staff Writer

“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” 

By: Fannie Flagg 

Genre: Fiction

Total score: 7/10

Book in five words: 1930s Southern small town tale.

If you Love: Small town politics, family dynamics, heartwarming tale — this is the book for you.

If you Hate: Straightforward chronology, plot-driven as opposed to character-driven plots — this is the book for you.

Where to begin? 1929, where the first chapter of the book begins? Or 1985, where the second chapter opens? In the opening ten pages, we hear narration from over four people — which ends up being not confusing at all. However, once you get past the first 140 pages (of this roughly 400-page book), you’ll be delightfully surprised. Enter the world of 1930s rural Alabama and a 1980s urban nursing home. The book follows the Threadgoode family and their surrounding friends, families, and acquaintances as they weather the good, the bad, love, hate, and all-around adventure that life has to give. It also follows 1980s Evelyn Couch as she meets an elderly Ninny Threadgoode and finds herself through Ninny’s tales of old Whistle Stop, Alabama. With racism, the Great Depression, love affairs, vendettas and even murder — “Fried Green Tomatoes” has it all. The writing is descriptive yet succinct, the characters are multi-dimensional (most of them at least), and they will worm their way into your heart. 

However, the author jumps in-between narrators and times in the most annoying way possible. Now this may have been to build suspense or atmosphere, but the only thing it succeeds in doing is jar the reader from what might have otherwise been a small absorption into the narrative into the frustrating space of reading a book you’re no longer invested in. Now, this is not to say that time-and-narration-jumping is not a very useful tool to surprise the reader or create a sense of suspense or general vibe. However, it only works when employed properly — when the reader is introduced, invested, and maybe even has a mental cup of coffee with the characters. If you time-and-character-jump while introducing your characters in the way Fannie Flagg does, all you can ensure are half finished books everywhere (unless some intrepid soul can swim through the swampy struggle of the first couple of chapters.) 

With all that said, this book made me believe in kindness again. The Threadgoodes fed those who could not afford it with dignity, battled against abusive spouses, and bailed poor miscreants out of jail. What stands out about them, however, is not just the kindness; while kindness is good, very rarely is it interesting. As Tolstoy famously said: “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Threadgoodes, with their endless compassion for the underdog, regardless of race or class, are incredibly inspirational without being preachy. Even so, their kindness doesn’t preclude them from hijinks and antics of the best kind. They stand with each other against the wrongs of the time (for the most part), but still send local drunks to the preacher’s house and organize secret clubs. 

It would be remiss to not mention the perspective of race in this book. When authors write characters that they bear little relation to, they ought to do a significant amount of research. Ideally, the author writes not just with compassion overall, but also with the sensitivity that can never measure up to the lived experience. The book was written in the 1980s by a white lady, and as compassionate as she may have been — the limit of perspective shows. Main characters like Idgie and Ruth act as white heroes in their standing up for their Black cooks and customers. Fannie Flagg’s attention to the narrative and depth of her Black characters may have excused her from her constant “othering” of them in the 1980s; however, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) quite pass today.   

Overall, the book is an excellent relic of its time; it will make you feel warm, gooey nostalgia for a time that always seems so dreary.

Agree? Disagree? Have something to say? Books to suggest? Reach out to me on Facebook: Elyanna Saperstein.