Don Noble
3:06 pm
Mon November 29, 2004

Standing in the Rainbow

It is often useful to begin with the title. In the novel, a family drive to the end of the rainbow and then stand in it, where it touches the ground. I am assured that this can actually be done. In any case, it is a metaphor.

Standing in the Rainbow

Standing in the Rainbow is Fannie Flagg?s fourth novel, following Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Caf?, and Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, to which this is a 493-page sequel.

It is often useful to begin with the title. In the novel, a family drive to the end of the rainbow and then stand in it, where it touches the ground. I am assured that this can actually be done. In any case, it is a metaphor.

Flagg sets her novel in Middle America, Southern Missouri, and peoples it with middle-class, regular Americans. Rainbow begins in 1946 and proceeds into the 1990s, but the bulk of it is in the fifties when, as Flagg presents it, America was standing in the rainbow.

We had won the war, the country was enjoying peace and considerable prosperity, and most of the old family values were in place. It was for the most part a halcyon time, a simpler time. The time of the Cleavers and I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best.

Flagg?s America, in this book, is a place where the crises cause no real tension in the reader, no real stress. Oh my, Ricky Nelson accidentally has two dates to the prom! How will he get out of this one?!

In Rainbow there are no racial problems. There is a crossdresser but he is discovered only after his death. The Army/McCarthy hearings do not figure, neurotic Cold War anxiety is not a factor, the counter-culture as represented by figures like Kerouac and Ginsberg has not been noticed. The Rosenbergs, and their execution, it almost goes without saying, do not figure large in Rainbow.

So, are all these omissions faults? No, not exactly. Just because I remember the fifties as a more complicated decade does not mean that Flagg is required to include every difficulty and unpleasantness. She has not. She has avowedly, openly stated that she, like her protagonist Dorothy Smith, who has a little radio show that is beamed from her living room every morning, chooses to ignore the unpleasant and accentuate the positive.

The result is a long, pleasant, happy novel in which the reader may rest assured that nothing truly terrible will happen. Bobby Smith drowns at the community pool, sure, but he is resuscitated, quite a while later. He is unharmed. He goes to the Army, to Korea, and is caught miles behind enemy lines, but you would have to be a real nervous Nelly to fret over his safety.

Fannie Flagg, a master of popular fiction, is at her best here. Books like Rainbow must be judged on their own terms. Flagg means to entertain and she does. She tells a fine story, through two entire generations, and the reader will turn the page. It is a warm bath of a story, and readers are not only carried along, as they would be by an old radio soap opera or a contemporary reality program such as Survivor, they are made to feel smart.

Betty Raye Smith marries Hamm Sparks, who starts out as an idealistic politician, friend of the farmer and little man, but after two terms as Governor is prevented by state law from seeking a third. He gets his wife to run as a surrogate. Wow! We know what that?s about.

Bobby, now a grown man at loose ends, is given a proposition by a Mr. Fowler, who plans to revolutionize the chicken business, and has the exclusive contract to supply chickens to a fellow over in Kentucky who thinks that fried chicken in the bucket to take home is going to be the coming thing. Should Bobby join in? You bet he should, the reader says, that?s Mr. Tyson and the Colonel. Bobby will get in on the ground floor. In Rainbow readers get not only to live in a prettified past; they also get the power of prophecy.

This book will not appear on syllabi in English department courses. It is not, strictly speaking, literature, and will not be read in a hundred years. It is, however, a masterful piece of escapist entertainment and will give pleasure, real pleasure, to millions, and that is not a bad thing.

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