The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem*****

 

mylifeontheroadI’ve been thinking a lot about Steinem since the recent unfortunate episode on a TV talk show. I was heartsick. What woman gets past 80 without a single regrettable senior moment? But most of us will be fortunate enough to have a spouse, partner, adult child, or other companion who will take us aside and suggest we rethink what we’re doing or saying. “Mom, I’m getting a little worried. Can we check your meds? What do you think?”

But Steinem doesn’t have that sort of support system. The women that were closest to her for a long, long time are already dead.

So I republish this blog post asking you to think, not about the single magic moment, for which she later apologized, but instead, for all the amazing accomplishments and selfless deeds she has done on behalf of women, and for her willingness in a time when most of white America kept to itself, to learn at the feet of women of color.

Because this is her legacy; her real one.

Feminist heroes are everywhere, but if I had to name half a dozen women that were at the core of the feminist movement that followed closely on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and the movement to end the US war in Vietnam, Steinem’s name would be among them. In fact, hers might be the first name out of my mouth. It was she who coined the salutation “Ms”, and who founded Ms. Magazine. When I saw she had written a memoir, I knew I had to have it, and when Net Galley and Random House gave me the DRC, I was delighted. But this is one of the few books that if I’d had to, I’d have been willing to pay full jacket price in order to read. Heroes are thin on the ground these days, and we treasure those that still walk among us.

My reading records reflect over 300 biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs I’ve read, and I didn’t even start listing them until about 3 years ago, so who knows how many? The one thing I know to expect, when someone really famous sits down to tell us about her life, is that the ego will be there. It might be veiled, especially if the person is famous for writing as opposed to something else, or it might be big and bold. Once in awhile it’s been so bald-faced that I came away wishing I hadn’t read the book so I could go on liking the author. So for one of the most famous of living feminists, I was braced and ready.

And this icon’s ego isn’t there. I don’t mean she hides it well; I just don’t find it. And it appears as if large amounts of time spent among Native sisters in struggle—Wilma Mankiller foremost among them—taught her so much about focusing on the circle, rather than a table that has someone at its head, a big-boss type, that she let go of whatever ego she might have been thinking about building. For example, when she works as an organizer, she dreads public speaking, but looks forward to the place at which one part of the auditorium begins to answer the questions from another part, and she knows a circle has formed, one in which she becomes just another person present. I was blown away!

Steinem began her career in journalism, and she is one of the finest writers whose work I have read. For a brief time in years gone by, I dismissed her because of her sometimes-attachment to Democratic party candidates, but the sum of her contributions has been so much more that I missed the forest for the trees during that time of my life. Now I want to read everything she ever wrote.

Travel is a great metaphor, but it’s also a material fact for Steinem. She grew up with a father who was a traveling salesman, and unlike most such men, he took his family with him. For most of her childhood, there was no home, merely a series of stop-overs. This rootless existence would leave some children traumatized. Kids thrive on routine, and not all would be able to translate constant travel into a sense of the usual. But Steinem mostly remembers it as a positive attribute, and credits her parents for their capacity to question social norms during a time most Americans were madly conforming. The fact that she continued to live out of a suitcase once she was grown and on her own is the greatest testament of all to her upbringing, and to her response to it.

There are oh, so many stories, some of which made me laugh out loud, and others that made me think. You can go winnow those out for yourself. And of course, my favorites may not be yours.

But the one thing I can promise you is a really great read, one with depth, yet not difficult to access. It’s friendly and feels as if we are having coffee with an old, dear friend, right at the table with one another. A circular table.

You have to read this book. It will be for sale October 27.