“The Whole Town’s Talking”
Author: Fannie Flagg
Publisher: Random House
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
Fannie Flagg’s novels are usually somewhat sweet, and, as they say, heart-warming stories of ordinary people going about their lives in small town America. One does not find or expect overt violence or sexuality. The novels are hugely successful and, even if most people don’t realize it, the road to mass popularity and wealth in America is “Everybody Loves Raymond,” not Lennie Bruce or Chris Rock talking blue.
However, lurking beneath the surface of a Flagg story is usually a disturbing secret.
In “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,” the secret may be the secret ingredient in the barbeque; in other novels there might actually be a skeleton in the attic, or a character, usually female, may have a secret life the town did not know about.
“The Whole Town’s Talking,” Flagg’s tenth, is sweet and wholesome and there is no secret, at least nothing that would startle even the most tender seventy-five-year-old reader. Flagg’s many fans will love it and they should; it was written especially for them.
The novel is chronological, narrated in decades beginning in 1889. Lordor Nordstrom, a successful immigrant Swedish bachelor farmer, has established a dairy in Swede Town, Missouri, later renamed Elmwood Springs. Nordstrom donates a piece of his land, a quiet, peaceful hilltop with a view, to be the community cemetery. He and his neighbors stake out their plots.
At 37, Nordstrom is lonely and ready for a wife. In a nicely done sequence the shy man manages to get himself a mail order bride, Katrina Olsen, a Swedish girl serving as a maid in Chicago. They are innocent, virtuous people and will have a wonderful marriage, and the dairy will grow into a significant corporation.
For a long while, the town thrives. There is a hardware store, a barber shop, movie theatre, and so on, all in good order.
The population grows and Flagg, as Creator, has the fun of naming them. There is Lester Shingle, Elmer Shimfissle, and the sheriff, a nod to Flagg’s longtime buddy, is named Childress.
As the novel progresses, decade by decade, we watch the generations pass. Most of these mortals are nice folk. A few are not. As in any community some are smarter than others, some are ambitious, some slothful. There is a peeping Tom, and a drunk or two, but mostly this is Mayberry RFD. WWI comes and goes but the town suffers no losses. This will not be true for WWII.
The sixties barely touch Elmwood Springs; the seventies bring disco and the Vietnam War, but not much.
It is a kind of Eden, but an Eden requires a serpent, and one will be provided. Hanna Marie, Nordstrom’s granddaughter, marries an outsider who turns out to be a lowlife. Flagg’s is a just world and he will be punished. The karma motif here is reminiscent of the New Age novel “The Celestine Prophecy”—all things happen as they were meant to happen, and at the right time.
After death, the departed gather at Still Meadows and chat pleasantly, all pains and cares gone forever. It’s a cross between “Our Town” and Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”
After a while, however, the departed depart, and Flagg, with transcendental optimism, seems to be suggesting a Hindu transmigration of souls, a life force that, in various forms, goes on forever. The world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper; it doesn’t end at all.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.