In her new book, “The Whole Town’s Talking,” Fannie Flagg tells the entire history of Elmwood Springs, Mo. — and residents of its hillside cemetery do some of the telling.
Elmwood Springs sprang to life when Lordor Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant with a newspaper-ad wife named Katrina, bravely moved to farmland he’d bought in an area called “Swede Town.” As the years fly by (you can almost see the calendar pages ripping from the wall), the Nordstroms helped their neighbors incorporate a new town, entice more settlers and woo businesses to support the burgeoning population.
The Nordstroms have a passel of children and so do their neighbors, but unfortunately Flagg doesn’t include a genealogy of the whole town. There’s a lot to keep track of when your characters include the living and the dead.
Yes, Flagg pulls a little Fannie dance with that cemetery. It isn’t until about one-quarter of the way through that she makes her big reveal: “Shortly after [his] funeral, the strangest thing happened. Lordor Nordstrom woke up.” Fortunately, this isn’t a zombies-in-gingham scenario. The patriarch is awake but firmly ensconced in his coffin. He isn’t alone there for long, as Katrina joins him in 1916 — and soon the conversation at Still Meadows cemetery starts percolating. Most of it is as cheerful and smooth-edged as the old-fashioned citizens.
Except for one teeny thing: Every so often, a dead neighbor disappears without explanation. The other cemetery denizens acknowledge it, but most are too busy reminiscing about good times or poking their (somewhat withered) noses into the current Elmwood Springs gossip. As that includes everything from wars to divorces to murders, this corps of corpses is kept pretty busy.
“In the grand scheme of things, their time at Still Meadows had been a short time, but it had been a good time,” says our unseen but eminently all-seeing narrator. Pull your afghan a little closer, and let’s hope this author’s energy doesn’t flag anytime soon.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Fannie Flagg
Random House. 432 pp. $28