From the beloved author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe comes another unforgettable, laugh-out-loud, and moving novel about what it means to be truly alive.
Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is a small town like any other, but something strange is happening out at the cemetery. “Still Meadows,” as it’s called, is anything but still. Funny and profound, this novel in the tradition of Flagg’s Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town deals with universal themes of heaven and earth and everything in between, as Flagg tells a surprising story of life, afterlife, and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:September 21, 1944
Place of Birth:Birmingham, Alabama
Education:The University of Alabama
Read an Excerpt
At age twenty-eight, Lordor Nordstrom had left his home in Sweden for America, looking for land to buy. Months later, while crossing down through southern Missouri, he found a large tract of good, rich land with plenty of natural springs, just right for a dairy farm. After he had cleared an area for his farm, he placed an ad in the Swedish-American newspapers for young farmers to come and start a new community and soon others joined him, bringing their families and farm animals with them. By 1880, a small farming community had formed that other people in the area called Swede Town, in spite of the fact that two Germans and one Norwegian (who was suspected of being Finnish) now lived there.
Today, Lordor Nordstrom stood on the top of a small hill looking over the long expanse of rolling green meadows and little white farmhouses below. It was so quiet and peaceful up here, nothing but the sound of birds and distant cowbells. He could see there was a most pleasant view from every angle. Exactly what he had been looking for.
He would donate this land to the community and name it Still Meadows. Walking back down the hill, Lordor felt very pleased with himself. As the original settler, he felt a great responsibility to the settlers who had come after him. And he had just found the perfect spot for their final resting place in the upcoming years.
In the following weeks, Lordor and all the local men cleared the land on the hill and began measuring and blocking out rows of burial plots. Each plot was given a number, written in both Swedish and English, so there would be no confusion. They built a nice wooden arch as an entrance that was carved with flowers and read still meadows cemetery, estab. 1889.
After all the landscaping was complete, Lordor called a meeting out at his farm, and announced that since they were all first settlers, their plots would be free, first come, first served, which seemed to Lordor the only fair way to do it. In the future, any newcomers would be charged fifty cents a plot.
The following Sunday, all the families packed up their wagons and went up the hill to stake their claim with small sticks. Some, like the Swensens, who hoped to start a large family, staked out an entire row of twenty or more plots to provide for the ones already here and those yet to come.
Birdie Swensen was very happy with their choice. She was quite musical and liked hearing the birds and cowbells in the distance. She liked the view as well. She said to her husband, “Look, Lars, you can see our farm and the windmill from here. It will be so nice for the children when they come to visit.” Mr. and Mrs. Henry Knott wanted to look back at the cornfields.
Although the flat area on the top of the hill was rather large, and they could have spread around, most people are creatures of habit. They all tended to pick out spots right next to their neighbors, much as they lived below, Lordor in the middle, under the big oak tree, and everyone else around him. Everybody, that is, except Old Man Hendersen, who marched way over to the other side and stuck his stick there. Someone once said that Eustus Hendersen liked his mules better than he did people, and he had agreed.
“Mules are mean, but at least they don’t talk your head off when you see them.”
Later, after everyone had chosen a plot, they sat down for a picnic lunch. Blueberries were in season, so the ladies had made pies. Mr. Lindquist played his fiddle, and Mrs. Knott played her accordion. All in all, it was a fun afternoon.
Of course, at the time, none of them knew about all the strange and mysterious events that would take place on that hill. And even if you had told them, they wouldn’t have believed you in a million years.
Love and Marriage
Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many plots to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future. At the ripe old age of thirty-seven, he was still one of the many bachelor farmers living in the area. He hadn’t meant to be. He’d just been busy trying to turn a no place into a someplace. There were five married ladies, who were always at him to find a nice woman and settle down, but finding a wife was not an easy thing to do.
Lordor wasn’t against the idea. A few years earlier, and at their insistence, he had tried to meet someone. That spring, he’d had his hair cut by a real barber, purchased a brand-new pair of shoes out of a catalog, and traveled all the way over to the Swedish community of Lindsborg, Kansas. But when he got there, he found out that all the good women were already taken. So Lordor had come back home empty-handed with nothing but the same new shoes and a good haircut.
Swede Town really was in dire need of more women. As it stood now, they couldn’t even throw a decent square dance. When they did, all the men had to take turns wearing a white handkerchief tied around their arms to signify that they were now assuming the role of a female partner. And having to dance and hold hands with another grizzly, callused, hard-skinned farmer had a way of making the real women seem a lot more beautiful, softer, and much more delicate than they really were. Their lack of ladies was causing them to lose good workers as well. After dancing with five-foot-tall, three-feet-wide Nancy Knott, one young farmhand later told Lordor, “When Mrs. Knott starts to look good to you, it’s time to move on.” And he did.
Lordor figured if he was ever going to make another attempt at finding a nice lady, the time was now. He had a new contract to sell milk and cheese to the railroad workers, and his financial future was now secure enough to support a wife. Besides, he was lonely. He wanted someone to share the new house he had just built. But courting a lady properly was a time-consuming proposition, and at present, he didn’t have enough of it. He was short on help, and his dairy farm required him to be there full-time.
At the next barn raising, as everyone was sitting at a long wooden table having lunch, Lordor talked the situation over with his neighbors. Henry Knott, a bandy-legged little hog farmer seated down at the other end, called out, “Hey, Lordor . . . why don’t you advertise for one of them mail-order brides? That way, she comes to you, and no work time’s lost.”
All the women jumped on that notion in a hurry. “Oh, Lordor,” said Mrs. Eggstrom, “that’s exactly what you should do.”
Lordor pulled a skeptical face at the idea, but Mrs. Lindquist, waving a spoon at him, said, “I know what you’re thinking, Lordor, but there’s no shame to it. A lot of men out west are doing it, and there must be plenty of nice Swedish girls out there looking to marry.”
“She’s right,” added Birdie Swensen, who had just placed another piece of fried chicken in front of him. “And if the girl is interested, she sends you her photograph. That way, we can all get a look at her and help you decide.”
Lordor still felt reluctant. He was a little bit shy around women anyway, and the idea of marrying a total stranger made him feel uneasy. But in the end, Mrs. Knott summed it up for him. “You’re getting old, Lordor. Get to it!” He guessed it wouldn’t hurt anything to at least try. So a week later, a small ad appeared in a Swedish-American newspaper in Chicago.
Swedish man of 37 years looking for Swedish lady for marriage.
I have a house and cows.
—Lordor Nordstrom Swede Town, Missouri
A Swedish Lady
Katrina Olsen, only five years from Sweden, was a domestic servant in a large household in Chicago. She had been helping clean the kitchen that morning and had noticed Lordor’s ad in a newspaper. She carefully tore it out and put it in her apron pocket. That night, when she and her friend and coworker Anna Lee were upstairs in their room, Katrina showed her the ad.
“Do you think I should answer it?”
Anna Lee looked at the ad with some alarm. “Oh, Katrina . . . Missouri? We don’t even know where that is. There could be wild Indians or bears even. And this Lordor Nordstrom might be mean and ugly.”
Katrina sighed. “I know, but I don’t want to be a servant all my life.”
“No, me either, but I don’t see much difference in being a servant and being some old cow-farmer’s wife. Besides, it’s too much hard work with no pay. No, I’d rather stay in the city and take my chances with the boys here.”
Being a pretty girl, Katrina had gone out with a few Chicago boys, friends of Anna Lee’s, but they’d been too slick and fast-talking for her taste. And, somehow, the idea of working hard on your own land did not seem that daunting to her. But what Anna Lee had said about bears and wild Indians was a real concern. When they had been learning English, they had read all the popular American dime novels, like Trapper Bess and Mountain Kate, that told of all the many perils women faced living out in the wilderness.
But the more Katrina thought about the ad, the more it intrigued her. She knew going all the way to Missouri would be a risky venture. She could be eaten by a mountain lion or worse. But the ad said the man had a house. When she had left Sweden, she had made certain promises, and she desperately wanted to keep them. So it might be worth taking a chance, but she had waited so long to respond, she was sure Mr. Nordstrom had found someone by now. Still, she guessed it couldn’t hurt to write and see.
A 24-year-old Swedish lady of the Lutheran faith with skills of cooking, sewing, and gardening and a good nature is answering your advertisement. Enclosed is my photograph. If you are so inclined and not already taken, please send your photograph.
Sincerely, Katrina Olsen
It had been weeks, and Lordor Nordstrom had not yet received one reply to his ad. A lot of girls had seen the ad, but most Swedish girls in Chicago were like Anna Lee. They had left farms in Sweden and had no desire to go back to one. Lordor had almost given up hope when Miss Olsen’s reply arrived.
The day the letter arrived, Lordor brought Miss Olsen’s photograph over to the women as promised. They had all gathered in Mrs. Knott’s kitchen for the occasion. After Lordor handed it over, he was told to wait outside so they could speak freely.
Lordor wandered out to the barn and had a smoke with Mr. Knott, who had also been banned from the kitchen. He had no more than finished his smoke when the kitchen door flew open and Mrs. Knott called out, “Lordor, come on in. . . . Henry, you stay out there. I’ll get your lunch in a minute.” Mr. Knott nodded. He hoped it would be sausage and potatoes today. His wife wasn’t much to look at, but oh, her steaming sauerkraut, her Wiener schnitzel, her piping-hot pot roast, creamed noodles, and apple dumplings.
Lordor walked slowly up the stairs to receive his verdict. He took his hat off, stepped inside, and was told to have a seat while five ladies stared at him. He suddenly felt himself start to sweat under the pressure when Birdie Swensen, the gentlest of the five women, spoke.
“Now, Lordor . . . a girl can be pretty and fool a man, but she can’t fool another woman. Yes, this girl is pretty, but for a wife, you want someone of good character as well.”
Lordor cleared his throat. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Trust us, you do. And so, after careful study, we all agree. This girl has character.” They all nodded as she continued. “We think you need to answer her letter right now, before somebody else grabs her.”
Mrs. Lindquist jumped in. “Besides, she’s a Lutheran, Lordor. What else do you need to know?”
Lordor was awfully glad to hear the ladies’ opinion. He cared very much about what they thought, but in this case, he hadn’t needed much prompting. The moment he had seen the girl’s photograph, he had been smitten. She was Swedish all right, with her blond braids arranged so neatly across her head and wearing her high-necked white lace blouse with a cameo. And she was very pretty. But it was something else that had captured his attention right away. It was a look in her eye that certain immigrants recognized in one another. A look of hope and determination, almost as if she was gazing past him, far into the future. The day the photograph had arrived, he’d stared at it for so long that when he closed his eyes that night, he could still see her face. He figured that must mean something, but he stopped himself from going too far. First, he needed to have his picture taken and give the girl a chance to get a good look at him.
Oh, Lord. Just the thought of her seeing his photograph filled him with dread. Now he knew how that poor horse he’d just bought must have felt when he had examined every inch of him and looked at all of his teeth before putting his money down. Tomorrow, he was going to give that horse some extra hay as a way of an apology.
The baby had come much too early. A woman named Ingrid Olsen had just given birth beside a lake next to the potato field where she worked. She guessed, by the weight of the potatoes, that the baby girl weighed no more than five pounds. A friend helped Ingrid wrap her up in a torn burlap sack.
Ingrid had already lost two babies, but if by some miracle this baby should live, she would name her Katrina. She knew that winter was coming. And with so little food and a house with such poor heat, she did not hold out much hope.
Ingrid looked down at the squirming little five pounds of blue-eyed life she held in her arms and cried for the child’s future.
In 1865, Sweden was a land with strict class divisions, with no middle ground. If you did not own land, you worked it for the ones who did, with no hope for a different future for you or your children.
Reading Group Guide
1. Page one begins in 1889, when we meet Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom, the founder of a small farming community in southern Missouri called “Swede Town.” Lordor was one of the thousands of immigrants who came to America in hopes of starting a new life, knowing they would probably never see their loved ones again. Why do you think they did it? Would you do it, too?
2. In reading about the hardships Katrina Olsen endures on her journey to America, did it make you wonder what your ancestors might have suffered to get to this country? Do you know who was the first in your family to arrive in America, and when? If he or she had not made that trip, where do you think you would be living today? Have you ever visited the country of your family’s origin?
3. At the prompting of the women in his community, Lordor places an ad in a Chicago newspaper advertising for a bride. Katrina answers Lordor’s ad and takes a big chance, traveling to a new and unknown place to meet a complete stranger. Would you have done it? How does advertising for a mail-order bride in the newspaper compare to the online dating sites of today?
4. The women of Swede Town seem to be very confident. As Birdie Swensen writes to Katrina, “It is not like Sweden here. We do not let the men rule with an iron hand. We are all free American women in Missouri” (page 20). What is it about life in Swede Town that makes them become so strong? Do you think pioneer women like these were the country’s first real feminists?
5. Why do you think that Katrina and Lordor’s marriage was so successful? Was it because they both wanted the same things out of life, or was it something else?
6. Miss Lucille Beemer loses student Gustav Tildholm, the love of her life, because of her position as a schoolteacher and her fear of what people might say about her. Was she wrong to reject him? Do you think we should let fear of other people’s opinions influence what we do? Do you think that things happen the way they are supposed to, or that we make our own destinies?
7. Going to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 in St. Louis has a great impact on Mayor Lordor Nordstrom, and on how he views his town’s future. Can you imagine life before electricity, modern plumbing, and automobiles?
8. As the years pass, we begin to meet the children of the original settlers. Elner Knott becomes Beatrice Olsen’s best friend at a very early age, and remains so for the rest of her life and beyond. Elner is always there to help Beatrice through the hard times, and also share the happy times. Do you have someone in your life like that?
9. In 1945 Lordor’s grandson, Gene Nordstrom, is killed in the Second World War and buried at Still Meadows. There, much to his surprise, he is suddenly able to speak with his grandparents, who had died before he was born. If you could, which of your deceased relatives would you like to speak with? What questions would you ask him or her?
10. Poor Tot Whooten, the town’s hairdresser, grows up with an alcoholic father, marries an alcoholic, and ends up with an alcoholic, pot-smoking son who steals from her. Is all this simply a matter of bad luck, or something else?
11. As they become adults, we see that Elner and her younger sister, Ida, are as different as night and day. Elner never loses her love of the farm life, whereas Ida lives in town and strives to be a leader in society. What do you think makes two people who grow up under the same circumstances so different? Do you know any siblings like that?
12. When a big shopping mall is built on the outskirts of Elmwood Springs, all the little downtown stores slowly start to shutter their doors. Later, as online shopping becomes the norm, even the big mall stores begin to close. Does this sound familiar to you? Do you think the big-box stores and the Internet have hurt small-town America? Or do you think it is just a sign of progress, and is better and more convenient for the shopper?
13. Ander Swenson had a suspicion that his new son-in-law, Michael Vincent, was a liar and a thief, but he did not want to upset his daughter by telling her so. Do you think he made a mistake? Or do you think it was not his place to interfere? Can you think of an ex- ample in your life where you were faced with a similar dilemma?
14. The book chronicles the history of one small town in America, beginning in 1889 and ending in 2021. Do you see any similarities between Elmwood Springs and the town you or your parents grew up in? If so, what are they?
15. Macky Warren is convinced that growing up in the 1940s and ’50s was the very best time to grow up in America, and that the country has been going downhill ever since. Another lady thinks that today is the best of times and that the future looks wonderful. In your opinion, what valuable things from the past have we lost? What valuable things have we gained? Are you happy with the place and time in which you grew up? How would you change it if you could?
16. We know that Michael Vincent has his wife, Hanna Marie, murdered, and for a long time he seems to get away with it. But in the end, thanks to some vital information shared by Miss Davenport and with a little help from a crow and a pigeon, Michael finally gets his just desserts. Do you believe that sooner or later everyone gets what they deserve?
17. At the end of the book, we find out that Evander Chapman, the old trapper, has come back as a snail, and Elner Shimfissle is now a crow. Have you ever felt that a deceased relative or friend was visiting you in a different form, like a bird, or a butterfly, or some other animal? Do you think this could happen? If you could come back, what form would you like to take?