The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg
Flagg's latest novel returns once again to Elmwood Springs and this time, she tells us everything, starting with its humble beginnings, when young Lordor Nordstrom finds this beautiful spot in Missouri, and decides to make his home there. From there Flagg takes us on a journey of joys and tears, from the late 19th century, through into the year 2020. This includes a nod to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" with narratives from the dearly departed of the town from their graves, and then some.
One reviewer called Flagg's books "comfort reading" and I have to agree with them.* There is little one can fault in Flagg's stories. Her writing is charming and witty, her characters are varied and interesting, and her settings are picturesque. Yes, in this novel, we do see some of the less seemly sides of rural America, but most of that is near the end of the book, as Flagg progresses into present day. Despite that, with this book, Flagg's innovation of the quasi-magical reality of the dead communing in the town's graveyard turns even death into pictorial adventure, even when it comes under disrepair.
That aside, as I read this, I began to wonder if there wasn't something somewhat political in Flagg publishing this book at this particular time. The reason for my feeling this is that Flagg has given us not just a retrospective of this fictional town she loves so well, but also an overview of small-town and rural America. The political aspect comes in where she shows us just how much of a toll some things about the last several decades have had on these parts of the country. It was almost as if Flagg was trying to show us that progress isn't always such a good thing. In fact, Flagg seems to have presented us with the reasons why there are people across the country who feel left behind. This isn't to say that Elmwood Springs doesn't evolve with the times. Still, some of the advances it witnesses do make it into something practically unrecognizable to the founding families. Flagg reminds us that sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes it isn't.
However, what Flagg doesn't give us is the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that has been rampant during this recent election campaign. Instead, she gives us a group of people who, for whatever their reasons, end up together in the same place. Some people seem to struggle for no reason, while others seem to bring their difficulties upon themselves. For the most part, those that prosper do so with grace, together with a sense that this community is not only a place to call home, but also their responsibility to help maintain as best as possible, together with their fellow citizens. Although they aren't very heterogeneous, they do seem to judge people on their characters and actions rather than where they come from, and that feels good.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that this novel is most poignant because of the lessons we can learn from it. On the one hand, Flagg is telling us that rural America is slowly dying, and we shouldn't reject the nostalgia that comes with this. On the other hand, Flagg is also telling us that we must keep hold of our humanity and compassion, so we can continue to help each other when we stumble, and that will allow us to celebrate together when we succeed, as well. That Flagg does this in such a beguiling, humorous and touching way, while avoiding schmaltziness is what makes this book worthy of five out of five stars, and I'm warmly recommending it.
* PS: With the results of the US elections now known, I wanted to add the following thought. Flagg made my heart ache for what the many Elmwood Springs of America have lost over the past few decades. Unfortunately, I can only fear for them, because I truly doubt that this decision is going to make things better for them, and it could make things worse. Now, I'm not so sure how comforting this book is, but that won't change my rating.
"The Whole Town's Talking" by Fannie Flagg, published by Random House, for release November 29, 2016 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.