The Whole Town's Talking

Random House. 432 pages. $28.

What happens after we die? This is a question pondered by each of us at some point, and perhaps the greatest mystery of life: What lies beyond our last breath?

Fannie Flagg provides one possible answer in her latest novel, a lighthearted, folksy tale that chronicles the history of a small town in the Midwest.

The story begins in 1889, when a Swedish dairy farmer by the name of Lorder Nordstrom decides to establish a community cemetery for himself and his fellow farmers in their newly formed “Swede Town.” Still Meadows became the final resting place for the founders (and, eventually, their descendants) of the town that evolved into Elmwood Springs, Missouri.

Flagg takes the reader through a decade-by-decade history of Elmwood Springs and its people, and in doing so, the reader is treated to an intimate account of some of the key events in our nation’s history. What makes the storytelling so special, however, is the everyday living. Life goes on in Elmwood Springs, always. Times of war, political unrest, and social upheaval happen here and affect the residents, just as they do everyone else in the world, but we see how life goes on. The turmoil doesn’t stop the townspeople from doing their jobs, getting married, having babies, and dying — life continues to be lived, as it should.

It’s an important message that we all need to hear, especially today.

As the residents of Elmwood Springs pass on, the reader learns that Still Meadows is anything but still, and the souls who reside there give the reader great perspective on the peace that comes with taking a step back and detaching from the anxieties that plague us in life.

As each decade passes, the reader becomes aware that the town, just like its residents, is living out its lifespan. Through Flagg’s well-crafted storytelling, we see that there doesn’t have to be any tragedy attached to it; it’s just part of the ever-evolving nature of the world.

Flagg delivers a charming, hopeful, story that spans over a century. Beginning with Lorder Nordstrom and his mail-order bride, Katrina, the tale grows and spreads, becoming the story of their children, grandchildren, neighbors — everyone. Every resident of the town plays a vital part, no matter how small, and each serves a purpose. Flagg ponders what that purpose is in the thoughts of one of the townspeople who has passed on:

“He had always been casting about in his mind: What was life all about? What the hell was his purpose? What was he supposed to be doing? …The fact that he was born was all the purpose he had ever needed. He was meant to be his parents’ child, his wife’s husband, his daughter’s father, and on and on.”

In this age of everyone seeking their purpose, of thinking they have to do something big, Flagg’s message is profoundly comforting.

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