The Whole Town’s Talking
When I taught creative writing, I always urged my students to think about audience. “Who will want to read what you have written,” I would ask. “And why?” As a reviewer, I often consider audience, too. Who will most enjoy this particular book, and why? The answer for Fannie Flagg’s latest novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, is an easy one.
Flagg wrote The Whole Town’s Talking for someone who grew up in middle-class America of the mid-twentieth century. That reader is probably female, and she most certainly is nostalgic. She fondly remembers “the good old days,” when Dad went to work and Mom stayed home and neighbors cared for one another. Quite possibly she lives in Iowa or Illinois or Nebraska or Kansas. She’s a grandmother now, perhaps a widow, and talks with her children and grandchildren almost every day. Maybe she’s had a hip replacement, or gall bladder surgery, or heart palpitations. In the dark of the night, she worries a bit about her own mortality.
The Whole Town’s Talking offers her some warm and fuzzy answers. Written with candor and affection, this heartfelt narrative traces a small town’s evolution from its founding until the present, from its beginning as a small collection of rural nineteenth-century Missouri farms to its heyday as a thriving community center to its gradual decline and demise. Founded by Swedish immigrants, Elmwood Springs has seen young people marry, families grow, careers succeed and fail. This mid-western town also has witnessed the inevitable deaths that bring successive generations into prominence.
Those deaths play a central role in The Whole Town’s Talking because the deceased citizens of Elmwood Springs all end up in the local cemetery. There, they continue gossiping and pondering and watching over the loved ones they left behind. This is the charm of Flagg’s very magical novel, hearing the deceased chat about whatever happens next. Because their families visit often, they keep up with progress in a way. But because they can converse only among themselves, not with anyone still alive, they cannot orchestrate the present or the future. They can only affectionately observe.
The Whole Town’s Talking moves back and forth between the living and dead, between the mundane instances of everyday life and the more traumatic moments of change. It also gives the reader snapshots of history. Highlights, like the advent of automobiles or the mayhem of World War II or the wonders of cinema and television or the onslaught of big box stores, affect Elmwood Spring’s population, alter their hopes and their dreams. Flagg even imagines alternative realities. What if so-and-so had married someone else? Or how come he did that? Or why didn’t she know?
The author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café has written another nostalgic gem about a collection of individuals who find strength in their community, who know the power of love. Most certainly this novel will not appeal to every reader. I myself enjoyed the many references to a middle-class past, but anyone growing up in the internet age will surely find the references dated. Perhaps Flagg aims her fiction at an overly sentimental, rose-colored glasses reader, perhaps not. I cannot, however, chastise her for her romantic vision of an idyllic past. Or for her acute musings about what past generations might think about the present. That’s exactly what The Whole Town’s Talking so successfully depicts. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Fanny Flagg: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion; Standing in the Rainbow; I Still Dream About You; Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven; A Redbird Christmas; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl; Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook; Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven; The Book of Peach; Standing in the Rainbow Proof.