I have been meaning to read this book ever since I watched the lovely film, years and years ago. I have a romantic notion of a life spent sitting on a porch, drinking sweet tea and eating peach pie somewhere in the Deep South, and this story really captured my imagination when I saw it realised on screen. The book proved to be just as enchanting, transporting me to the world of the tiny clapboard railroad town of Whistle Stop, peopled by generations and generations of the same happily intertwined families, supporting each other through the triumphs and disappointments of their lives.While it is not the most beautifully, impressively written novel in the world, the story it contains is heartwarming, touching and uplifting, with characters so powerfully realised that I felt like I knew them. It is the perfect comfort read.
Evelyn Couch is a 1980’s housewife in Birmingham, Alabama. She is deeply unhappy; she is heavily overweight, has never had a job, has children she has no real relationship with and a marriage lacking in any passion. However, when she goes to visit her mother-in-law at her nursing home, Evelyn finds her life changing when she meets Ninny Threadgoode, a temporary fellow resident. Ninny is a talker, and Evelyn initially finds her chatty companion a nuisance, but soon she is drawn into the stories Ninny tells her about her life in the small town of Whistle Stop in the early 1900s, and the fascinating family and friends she lived alongside. Ninny grew up in the home of her foster parents, Alice and Poppa Threadgoode, who lived in a big white clapboard house filled with children, warmth and laughter. Most loved were Buddy, the cheeky, much adored teenage son and Idgie, the incorrigable tomboy. Both were always getting into scrapes and causing much hilarity for the whole family, but Idgie changed, withdrawing from life, when Buddy died in a tragic accident on the railroad tracks. A few years later, a young girl, Ruth Jamison, arrived in Whistle Stop to work for the church over the summer. Idgie fell instantly in love, much to the amusement of the Threadgoodes, but over the course of that long hot summer, Ruth and Idgie became truly inseparable. However, Ruth was engaged to a boy back in her hometown, and she had to leave. Idgie couldn’t bear it; eventually she went to rescue Ruth from her abusive husband and she brought her back to Whistle Stop. They would go on to live together, running the Whistle Stop cafe and bringing up Ruth’s son, Stump, though there always was a mystery about what happened to Ruth’s husband, who disappeared one stormy night…
Ruth and Idgie formed the centre of Whistle Stop with their cafe that was always open; their black cook Sipsey’s food was legendary, as was Ruth’s gentle welcome and Idgie’s lively sense of humour. They welcomed everyone, including the hobos that caught the railway from place to place due to the Great Depression and the many down on their luck black men who often received their only kindness from white people at the door of the Whistle Stop Cafe. Ninny, who went on to marry Idgie’s brother Cleo, tells Evelyn of all the ups and downs of the various people of Whistle Stop’s lives, alongside trying to encourage her, through the stories she shares, to take charge of her own life and create the future she wants. Evelyn is enchanted by Ninny’s description of her past and soon the world of the Whistle Stop Cafe becomes more real to her than her own. However, Whistle Stop is now a rundown rag bag of houses, with much of the town abandoned due to the decline of the railroad, and the Cafe closed down many years ago. The halcyon days Ninny describes are long gone, but will Evelyn be able to resurrect them through capturing some halcyon days of her own, inspired by the courage and humour of Idgie and Ruth, and the customers of their cafe?
This is such a beautiful tale about what is truly most important in life, and of how much we have to learn from the lives of those who have come before us. I loved every single minute, and I didn’t want to come to the end at all; like Evelyn, the world of Whistle Stop became uncannily real to me, and I could imagine every character, building and delicious plate of fried green tomatoes as if they were standing right in front of my face. It’s rare to have such an utterly enchanting and engrossing reading experience; if you’ve never read this, you must. I’m now going to re-watch the film, as I can’t quite bear to leave Whistle Stop behind just yet!