Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!by Fannie Flagg
Once again, Flagg's humor and respect and affection for her characters shine forth. Many inhabit small-town or suburban America. But this time,
Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! is the funny, serious, and compelling new novel by Fannie Flagg, author of the beloved Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (and prize-winning co-writer of the classic movie).
Once again, Flagg's humor and respect and affection for her characters shine forth. Many inhabit small-town or suburban America. But this time, her heroine is urban: a brainy, beautiful, and ambitious rising star of 1970s television. Dena Nordstrom, pride of the network, is a woman whose future is full of promise, her present rich with complications, and her past marked by mystery.
In my own experience, people in small towns steal other people's property, spouses and children. They commit arson, beat their wives and children, shoot at each other, do drugs and terrorize people who are different. People in the city, on the other hand, are usually too busy to misbehave too badly.
The opposite is the case in the world of Fannie Flagg (whom you may know from such TV programs as the Gong Show and Match Game). In her new novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl, the bad people are found in the city. Specifically, 1970s New York City, where brittle protagonist Deena Nordstrom reigns as the popular host of TV's highest-rated morning news program and does daily battle with a ratings-mad boss to retain her journalistic scruples.
But Deena, the Baby Girl of the title, also has a tendency to tie one on and bed unsuitable men (well, maybe; she also tends to black out and forget the details). Nevertheless, she's an ace interviewer who pulls in good ratings and a good salary-until an evil gossip-monger named Sidney Capello threatens to take it all away by revealing a Terrible Secret about the mother who abandoned Deena 15 years earlier.
Like her 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Flagg's Baby Girl jumps back and forth in time and place. It opens with a so-idyllic-as-to-seem-satirical scene in 1940s Elmwood Springs, Missouri, where a woman named Neighbor Dorothy-the antithesis of Howard Stern-hosts a sickeningly sweet radio show in the front room of her house. During the half-hour program, a parade of simple-but-good local oddballs like Beatrice the blind songbirdtake their turns at the mike, and nary a negative word is aired.
Cut back to New York, where Deena-the friendless, hung-over career girl-is unhappy, but doesn't know why. After collapsing from ex-haustion, she finds herself on the couch of a psychiatrist (an African-American woman in a wheelchair). Despite intense therapy, which we get to witness, the emotionally vacant Deena remains enigmatic-even to herself-until the last part of the book, when it turns out that she's actually rather boring. Far more impressive a character is her old college roommate Sookie, a bubbly, born-again Southern belle with a keen mind and a sharp tongue. But there's far too little of her in the book.
Flagg does not skimp on plot. During her quest, Deena meets her hero, Tennessee Williams, and the two have a drunken heart-to-heart. In one gory scene, Deena almost dies from a bleeding ulcer. She decides to convalesce in Elmwood Springs, where she lived for the first four years of her life and has some distant relatives. There, she makes the decision to find out the truth about her mother and enlists the aid of another (former) shrink, an insufferably romantic geek named Gerry O'Malley.
They eventually track down the Terrible Secret, which turns out to be not-that-terrible. (Stop reading here if you don't want to know what it is.) It turns out that her mother was (gasp!) a light-skinned black woman who spent most of her life passing for white and dragging her daughter from town to town to avoid detection. Deena's research also uncovers a musician uncle whose career and life were ruined by an African-American version of Sidney Capello.
Flagg does a fine job of creating the racist world Deena's mother tried to protect her from, but she deftly avoids answering the question of how the people of the idyllic pre-civil rights Elmwood Springs have reacted to her secret. She addresses the question indirectly by having one of Deena's relatives react with indifference, another with disbelief ("Don't you think somebody would have noticed if Gene had married a colored girl?"). Great Aunt Elner, who goes back to the days of Neighbor Dorothy, adds, "Well, whatever she was, she was a pretty thing. Isn't that what they say? That black is beautiful . . . And I'll tell you another thing, they ought to put Amos and Andy back on the radio."
Ultimately, the experience of reading Baby Girl is much like eating a chocolate éclair (or, if you prefer, like having mediocre sex). In other words, you have to go through a lot of air and fat before you get to the custard. Not that the book isn't highly readable-it is, much like the back of a cereal box is readable. It's also exasperating, and in the end, the episodic nature and often-ponderous dialogue make it seem more like watching a TV movie than reading a novel. Cara Jepsen
"ENJOYABLE . . . [FLAGG] KEEPS IT SIMPLE, SHE KEEPS IT BRIGHT, SHE KEEPS IT MOVING RIGHT ALONG--AND, MOST OF ALL, SHE KEEPS IT BELOVED."
--The New York Times Book Review
"SATISFYING . . . [FLAGG'S] FAITH IN THE HEALING POWER OF SMALL TOWNS AND FAMILY ARE REFRESHING."
- Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.36(w) x 7.06(h) x 1.17(d)
- Age Range:
- 12 - 17 Years
Read an Excerpt
Elmwood Springs, Missouri
In the late forties Elmwood Springs, in southern Missouri, seems more or less like a thousand other small towns scattered across America.
Downtown is only a block long with a Rexall drugstore on one end and the Elmwood Springs Masonic Hall on the other. If you walk from the Masonic Hall to the Rexall, you will go by the Blue Ribbon cleaners, a Cat's Paw shoe repair shop with a pink neon shoe in the window, the Morgan Brothers department store, the bank, and a little alley with stairs on one side of a building leading up to the second floor, where the Dixie Cahill School of Tap and Twirl is located. If it is a Saturday morning you'll hear a lot of heavy tapping and dropping of batons upstairs by the Tappettes, a troop of blue-spangled Elmwood Springs beauties, or at least their parents think so. Past the alley is the Trolley Car diner, where you can get the world's best chili dog and an orange drink for 15 cents. Just beyond the diner is the New Empress movie theater, and on Saturday afternoons you will see a group of kids lined up outside waiting to go in and see a Western, some cartoons, and a chapter in the Buck Rogers weekly serial. Next is the barber shop and then the Rexall on the corner. Walk down on the other side of the street and you'll come to the First Methodist Church and then Nordstrom's Swedish bakery and luncheonette, with the gold star still in the window in honor of their son. Farther on is Miss Alma's Tea Room, Haygood's photographic studio, the Western Union, and the post office, the telephone company, and Victor's florist shop. A narrow set of stairs leads up to Dr. Orr's "painless" dentist's office. Warren and Son hardware is next. The son is eighteen-year-old Macky Warren, who is getting ready to marry his girlfriend, Norma, and is nervous about it. Then comes the A & P and the VFW Hall on the corner.
Elmwood Springs is mostly a neighborhood town, and almost everyone is on speaking terms with Bottle Top, the white cat with a black spot that sleeps in the window of the shoe repair shop. There is one town drunkard, James Whooten, whose long-suffering wife, Tot Whooten, has always been referred to as Poor Tot. Even though she has remarried a tee-totaller and seems fairly happy for a change, most people still call her Poor Tot out of sheer habit.
There is plenty of fresh air and everybody does their own yard work. If you are sick, somebody's son or husband will come over and do it for you. The cemetery is neat, and on Memorial Day, flags are placed on all the veterans' graves by the VFW. There are three churches, Lutheran, Methodist, and Unity, and church suppers and bake sales are well attended. Most everybody in town goes to the high school graduation and to the yearly Dixie Cahill dance and twirl recital. It is basically a typical, middle-class town and in most living rooms you will find at least one or two pairs of bronzed baby shoes and a picture of some child on top of the same brown and white Indian pony as the kid next door. Nobody is rich but despite that fact, Elmwood Springs is a town that likes itself. You can see it in the fresh paint on the houses and in the clean, white curtains in the windows. The streetcar that goes out to Elmwood Lake has just been given a new coat of maroon and cream paint and the wooden seats shellacked to such a high polish they are hard not to slide out of. People are happy. You can see it in the sparkle in the cement in front of the movie theater, in the way the new stoplight blinks at you. Most people are content. You can tell by the well-fed cats and dogs that laze around on the sidewalks all over town and even if you are blind you can hear it in the laughter from the school yards and in the soft thud of the newspaper that hits the porches every afternoon.
But the best way to tell about a town, any town, is to listen deep in the night...long after midnight...after every screen door has been slammed shut for the last time, every light turned off, every child tucked in. If you listen you will hear how everyone, even the chickens, who are the most nervous creatures on earth, sleep safe and sound through the night.
Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is not perfect by any means but as far as little towns go it is about as near perfect as you can get without having to get downright sentimental about it or making up a bunch of lies.
The "Neighbor Dorothy" Show
Elmwood Springs, Missouri
June 1, 1948
Everyone in Elmwood Springs and thereabouts remembers the day they put the radio tower in Neighbor Dorothy's backyard, and how excited they were that night when they first saw the bright red bulb on top of the tower, glowing like a cherry-red Christmas light way up in the black Missouri sky. Because the land was flat, it could be seen for miles in every direction and over the years it came to be a familiar and comforting sight. It made people feel connected somehow.
Had you been there, between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., unless somebody had knocked you out cold, most likely you would have been listening to the "Neighbor Dorothy" radio show just like everybody else except for old man Henderson, who still thought that radio was a silly invention for silly people. Both the high school and the elementary school scheduled study periods between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. so the faculty could hear it in the teachers lounge. Farm wives for miles around stopped whatever it was they were doing and sat down with a pad and pencil at the kitchen table to listen. By now Dorothy Smith was one of the most listened to radio homemakers in the midwest, and if she gave out a recipe for maple swirl pound cake that day, most men would be eating it for dessert that night.
The show was broadcast live from her living room every day Monday through Friday and could be heard over station WDOT, 66 on your dial. Nobody dared miss the show. Not only did she give out household hints and announce upcoming events, you never knew who might show up. All sorts of people would drop by to talk on the radio or sing or tap dance or do whatever it was they had a mind to do for that matter. A Mrs. Mary Hurt even played the spoons once! Mother Smith played organ interludes. Other regulars you didn't want to miss were Ruby Robinson, the radio nurse; Beatrice Woods, the little blind songbird who played the zither and sang; Reverend Audrey Dunkin, the minister, who would often drop by for an inspirational talk or read an inspirational poem; as well as a handbell choir from the First Methodist church. Last year The Light Crust Doughboys came on and sang their hit "Tie Me to Your Apron Strings Again, Mother" and Neighbor Dorothy also had a visit from the Hawaiian Fruit Gum Orchestra, all the way from Yankton, South Dakota. This is not to mention two local gals, Ada and Bess Goodnight, who would sing at the drop of a hat, and the news, which was mostly good.
In 1948 Neighbor Dorothy was a plump, sweet-faced woman with the big, wide-open face of a young girl. Although in her fifties she still looked pretty much the same as she did in the first grade when her husband, Doc Smith, the pharmacist down at the Rexall, first met her. After high school Dorothy graduated from the Fannie Merit School of Home Economics in Boston and came home and married Doc and taught school for a while until she had her first child, Anna Lee. Anna Lee had a few health problems, nothing serious, just a little asthma, but enough so that Neighbor Dorothy thought it was best to stay home with her and Doc agreed. While she was home all day she wanted to keep busy so she began baking cakes -- and more cakes. Tea cakes, lemon, banana, caramel, cherry, chocolate, maple, and jelly roll cakes. You name it, she baked it. But her specialty was theme cakes. You'd give her a theme and she'd make you the cake to go with the occasion. Not that she couldn't make a mean noodle ring or anything else you wanted but she was known for her cakes. There was not a child in Elmwood Springs or nearby who had not had a pink and white circus cake with the miniature toy carousel on top for her birthday party. Which is how she came to be at the Mayfair Auditorium over in Poplar Bluff on Home Demonstration Day giving out the recipe for her circus cake on the radio. She just happened to mention that she used Golden Flake Flour for all her cakes and the next day, when Golden Flake Flour sales doubled in four states, she was offered a show of her own. She told the Golden Flake Flour people thank you, but she could not leave home every day to drive the twenty-something miles to the station in Poplar Bluff and back, which is how the radio tower came to be put up in her backyard in the first place and how her youngest child, Bobby, happened to grow up on the radio. He was only two years old when Neighbor Dorothy first went on the air, but that was over ten years ago and he does not remember a time when there wasn't a radio show in the living room.
When she first asked Doc what he thought about the idea, he laughed and said, "Well, you might just as well talk on the radio, you talk on the phone all day anyhow." Which was not quite true, but true enough. Dorothy did love to chat.
Although radio station WDOT is only a 200-watt station, because the land is flat-on cold, still days when the skies are crystal clear, and it is really good radio weather-the signal from WDOT can tear a hole straight through the midwest all the way up into Canada and on one particularly cold day was picked up by several ships at sea. You couldn't say her show is clever or sophisticated or anything like that, but one thing you can say for sure is that over the years she's sold a hell of a lot of Golden Flake Flour and Pancake Mix and anything else she advertises.
Neighbor Dorothy's house is located on the left side of First Avenue North, and has the address written in big black letters on the curb so you can't miss it. It is the last house on the corner with a wraparound porch, a two-swing front porch, one swing on one end and one on the other. It has a green and white canvas awning all the way around to the side of the house.
If you were to walk up the porch stairs and look to your right you would see written in small gold and black letters on the window wdot radio station, number 66 on your dial. Other than that it looks just like everybody else's house, without the call letters on the window and the big radio tower in the backyard, of course. No matter what time of day you come to the front door you are going to find it open. No point in closing it. Too many people in and out all the time. The milkman, the bread man, the ice man, the gas man, her twelve-year-old son, Bobby, who goes in and out a hundred times a day, and of course all her many radio visitors, who often come by the busload and are always welcomed with a fresh batch of special radio cookies she makes every day for the purpose. As you walk in, to the right is a large room with a desk with a microphone on it that says WDOT. The desk sits in front of the window so she can always turn around and look out and report what the weather is doing firsthand. Mother Smith's organ is to the left, and about ten chairs are set up so people can come in and sit down if they want to. Neighbor Dorothy's house is on the corner where the Greyhound bus stops, so it makes it nice while people are waiting for the bus to go in and watch the show or sit on the front porch and wait, particularly if it's raining. The floors are dark wood and Neighbor Dorothy has some nice scatter rugs here and there. The curtains are green with a yellow and deep pink floral print with what looks like might be palm trees. She has recently put up brand-new venetian blinds, a Christmas present from Doc.
Copyright © 1998 by Fannie Flagg. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Fannie Flagg began writing and producing television specials at age nineteen and went on to distinguish herself as an actress and writer in television, films, and the theater. Her first novel, Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, spent ten weeks on The New York Times paperback bestseller list, and her second novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe , spent thirty-six weeks on the same list. It was produced by Universal Pictures as the feature film Fried Green Tomatoes. Flagg's script was nominated for both the Academy and Writers Guild of America awards, and won the highly regarded Scripters Award. Flagg narrated both novels on audiotape and received a Grammy Award nomination for best spoken word. Flagg lives in Montecito, California.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Montecito, California
- Date of Birth:
- September 21, 1944
- Place of Birth:
- Birmingham, Alabama
- The University of Alabama
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