Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Club: "Can't Wait to Get to Heaven"

Fannie Flagg's Can't Wait to Get to Heaven was the most recent selection of our little book club. Flagg is best know for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe which was made into a popular movie. This book continues the story of several characters introduced in Standing in the Rainbow.

The story centers on Elner Shimfissle and the residents of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Elner is an active octogenarian fretted over by her niece, Norma. Elner falls from the fig tree in her back yard when attacked by a swarm of wasps and she is pronounced dead at the hospital. News of her death spreads quickly as family and friends recall how she touched their lives. When Elner unexpectedly wakes up at the hospital, a frightened nurse runs away never to return to the profession and the residents of Elmwood Springs are left wondering what to do with all the "funeral food" they had prepared.

As Judy stated it so well, this is not a "message book" but it is a message book. Flagg makes us aware of how we touch so many others during our lives and how simple kindness builds a network of mutual care.

Elner, the widow of a farmer, left the farm to live in town at the insistence of Norma. She is a robust, independent woman with a mind that doesn't stop working. Elner is awed by the wonders of the universe and full of questions. She admires Thomas Edison and celebrates his birthday by turning on every electrical appliance in her home.

Elner has a near death experience in which she travels down hospital corridors, goes on an amusement park elevator ride, and ends up in Heaven where she is met by the Supreme Being in the shape of her former neighbor, Doc Smith with his wife Dorothy. Elner's Heaven is Elmwood Springs of the decade following World War II populated by friends who passed before her arrival. When she returns to the present and tells Norma about her NDE, Norma insists that she tell no one about it. The doctors will surely institutionalize Elner if they hear her tale.

All of the long-time residents of Elmwood Springs have been touched by Elner. Her selfless gestures ranged from minor thoughtfulness to guiding young Luther Griggs, who was headed for delinquency and worse, toward productive adulthood. These tales uplifted all of us and made us realize how even the smallest kindness may have significance to the recipient.

Flagg is a comedienne, and her books have laugh-out-loud moments as well as thought-provoking stories. The hospital administrator and legal counsel are convinced Elner and her family will sue the hospital. The attorney interviews Elner about her erroneous diagnosis, and she tries to keep her promise to Norma about not revealing her NDE while also answering truthfully. She leaves out Heaven, but mentions floating above the hospital and spying a brown golf shoe on the roof. The shoe becomes the obsession of the attorney in a subplot that ends well -- as do most of the other subplots.

We all enjoyed the fact that Flagg left the tale of the golf shoe and a heavenly piece of cake open to interpretation by the reader. The discovery of a loaded gun at the bottom of Elner's dirty clothes hamper has a shocking story behind it that is resolved satisfactorily but allows the reader to consider the moral dilemma of the characters.

In Flagg's novels, the characters are everything. She portrays them with foibles the reader can relate to and gives them obstacles we can identify with. In a small town, everyone knows everything about everyone else. I grew up in Portland -- so it was Judy, Christine, and Rhonda who discussed their youths in small towns. Childhood in their small towns was free ranging, with entire days spent outside the home. However, by their teenage years they found their home towns stifling. For them, Flagg's portrayal of Elmwood Springs rang true.

During her brief visit in Heaven, Elner gets to meet Thomas Edison. We discussed historical figures we would like to meet:  Eisenhower, Jane Austen, Churchill, and Darwin. We added Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mother Theresa. People who touched many lives and who drew on inner strengths during challenging times.

I had both Standing in the Rainbow and Can't Wait to Get to Heaven on my bookshelf, so I read the set. I highly recommend both books. I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe years ago and, per usual, the book is more dense than the movie (although in this case the screenplay written by Flagg made for an excellent film). I also highly recommend Flagg's Welcome to the World Baby Girl. Her books are easy to read, they are funny, yet they make the reader ponder serious issues. 

Our next book is The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. We will discuss it in January after the holidays.


gowestferalwoman said...

oh girlfriend, I have been reading A LOT lately due to being laid up, and now you gone and done it - given me more to read!

I LOVE IT! said...

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Christine Fiore
The Persian Pickle Club website:
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