Fannie Flagg's 'Rainbow': so gosh-darned blessed

August 11, 2002|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

Standing in the Rainbow, by Fannie Flagg. Random House. 400 pages. $24.95

Fannie Flagg writes with such enthusiasm, good humor and tenderness that it feels downright un-neighborly to mention how hopelessly unrealistic her fictional small town is.

Her creation, Elmwood Springs in southern Missouri, exists, all right -- on black-and-white television sitcoms. Perhaps it went by the name Mayberry (The Andy Griffith Show), or Mayfield (Leave It to Beaver) or Springfield (Father Knows Best).

No matter the name, it is the kind of wholesome place where free-spirited boys demonstrate their courage by climbing the water tower, where teen-age girls fret over what prom dress to wear and where apron-wearing housewives bake the blues away. Everyone's smiling, not because they're medicated, but because they feel so gosh-darned blessed.

This is a book in which the chapters feel like episodes, with titles to match: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "The Shy Senior," "The Christmas Show," "Jimmy and the Trolley Car Diner."

The show -- er, story -- begins in 1946. World War II is over, and "It seemed like everyone in the world wanted to be an American." We watch the world change over the next half-century through the eyes of the Smith family, the most well-adjusted brood since Donna Reed went off the air.

There's Doc, the beloved town pharmacist, and pretty Anna Lee, the Blondie teen-ager, and ornery Bobby, her 10-year-old brother. But the star is big-hearted Dorothy Smith, known throughout the Midwest as Neighbor Dorothy, the host of a daily radio show, broadcast from her living room, that features homespun humor, recipe sharing and innocuous chit-chat.

Like any good sitcom, Elmwood Springs is populated with an endless supply of eccentric characters and comic visitors who push the story along. There's a bumbling beautician and a girl called Little Blind Songbird and the Oatman Family Gospel Singers, whose painfully shy daughter, Betty Raye, was accidentally switched at birth and hates performing. Many high jinks ensue.

This is all good fun. Flagg will not disappoint readers who enjoyed Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. She is an engaging storyteller with a gift for creating compelling female characters (the men are one-dimensional) and comic set pieces. Neighbor Dorothy sounds exactly like the radio personality my mother listened to every day. And perhaps you had to grow up in a small town to appreciate how perfectly Flagg describes the excitement generated when the cafeteria in Elmwood Springs unveils its new lighted sign.

But Flagg loves her characters and her small town too much to set them free. Just when life for them threatens to become complicated and messy -- in short, real -- she loses interest. Timid Betty Raye, a symbol of the women's movement, becomes the wife of a Clintonesque politician named Hamm Sparks, but the moment that she leaves his shadow Flagg turns the spotlight elsewhere.

Tellingly, the one issue that dominated life in Southern towns during the past half-century -- race -- is never mentioned. The isolation and conformity that can produce bigotry and closed-mindedness in small towns have no place in Elmwood Springs, just as they never did in Mayberry. Flagg would not recognize the Main Street that Sinclair Lewis described.

Reading this book is a harmless way to get swept away for a few hours, as amusing as watching Aunt Bee, Barney Fife and Opie Taylor carry on in television reruns. But a writer who dedicates her book to Eudora Welty and Willie Morris, as Flagg has this one, is attempting to climb the water tower of fiction. Producing another small-town fairy tale isn't going to get her there.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register. He grew up in an Iowa town named Granger -- population 600 --- with two water towers, one that says "Hot" and one that says "Cold."

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