The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg (Random House, 2016)
What happens to us when we die? Does everything stop and our bodies just turn to dust? Or do our souls continue to exist in some ethereal form? Are we able to see what happens to our loved ones; are we reunited with those who have gone before us? This is just one of several intriguing themes that the delightful Fannie Flagg explores in her latest novel The Whole Town's Talking.
The first part of The Whole Town's Talking introduces Lordor Nordstrom, a 28 year old Swedish immigrant who, in 1880, comes to America in order to establish a new farming community in the middle-of-nowhere, Missouri. Lordor, a humble, hard-working man, with a quiet charisma, is able to attract a number of adventurous families from Germany and Norway to assist in building a better life in the New World.
The most endearing part of the early section of the novel is Lordor's search for a helpmate, which he embarks on through ads in city newspapers. Fortunately, he finds a beautiful, young Swedish woman named Katrina to marry and help him build his family and farm. The story of their tender romance is loving and so respectful that we cheer at each milestone that comes to the couple as their lives move into the future. Lordor, a natural born leader, is proclaimed life-long mayor of the town that he created, and upon his death, his son assumes this honorary position.
As one reads The Whole Town's Talking, he/she can't help but recall the sweet simplicity of Thornton Wilder's classic drama, Our Town. Lordor and his neighbors come to realize that they need a town to support the growing agricultural community. Therefore, they design a village, which, after much discussion, they name Elmwood Springs. A one block town soon boasts of a doctor, a cafe, a blacksmith, and a dry goods store. Honest and hard-working characters move to town, and we learn who bakes the best pies, makes the most delectable fig jam, and who is the most avid gardener among them. We are introduced to a group of people who, like the characters in Our Town, populate an American community with the good and the flawed. We follow generations of the descendents of Lordor and the others who followed them throughout the story.
In the age of modern technology we don't tend to dwell much on pioneer life in rough and rustic times. We don't think about the days when our dairy products were delivered to our doors by milkmen several times a week. Flagg tells the story in such a way that the reader wears a smile through much of the novel, which marches through time by the decades in a sweet and wistful way. However, there are reminders in the narrative that things in America have not always been sweet; there are wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. One of the first political matters upon which the book touches is the women in town mobilizing to win the right to vote, and Flagg gently nudges us to remember the days when women were appreciated but not recognized as a major force in society.
Aside from creating the town of Elmwood Springs, Lordor and friends set aside a parcel of land as a final resting place for the townspeople upon their departure from life. Here Flagg adds a touch of Edgar Lee Masters' magical book of verse, Spoon River Anthology, which tells the story of a fictional American town through the epitaphs of its citizens. The dead of Elmwood Springs take on a “life of their own,” and we get Flagg's vision of the afterlife. Observing Elmwood Springs from their graves on the hill is a good experience for the deceased. Ola Warren puts it like this, “At the end, I got to the point where I hated having a body. Everything started going haywire on me, and I started falling apart like an old car.” (p. 305) In Still Meadows pain is a distant memory, but the residents on the hill can still observe the goings on in their community. That is, until they mysteriously vanish from their final resting place.
In true American literary tradition, Flagg's newest novel, keeps the reader smiling, turning pages, and tracing the roots of our country's highest and lowest moments through characters that uplift and remind us of the power of life and the importance of legacy. With great insights into human nature, Flagg's The Whole Town's Talking will give the reader a lot to talk about.