If you ever wondered what it was like to live in the early 1940’s in the South, where your nearest neighbor was miles away, read Fannie Flagg’s Standing in the Rainbow. And, maybe, you will have a yearning for the good old days, when life was so much simpler and pleasures so sweet and everyone knew everyone
-- and everyone knew Bottle Top, the white cat with a black spot that slept in the window of the shoe repair shop. The time frame is 1946 until the present and the town is Elmwood Springs, Missouri, which reflects the national mood -- optimistic -- as they make the transition from war to peace.
Elmwood Springs isn’t all idyllic and life isn’t all roses and sunshine always, but it’s as close to perfection as a small town like it can get. And, at certain moments, when the sun is shining and its rays light up
this small world, one gets the distinct feeling of ‘standing in the rainbow.’
The downtown consists of one main block with a Rexall drugstore and a Masonic Hall on
either end. In between lie the Blue Ribbon cleaners and a Cat’s Paw shoe repair shop with a pink neon sign shaped like a shoe.
Then there’s the Morgan Brothers department store, the bank, and the Dixie Cahill School of Tap and Twirl. Past that is the Trolley Car diner where, for 15 cents, you can have the world’s best chili dog and an orange drink. 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. If you cross the other side of the street, you will bump into the First Methodist Church, the Nordstrom Swedish bakery and luncheonette
(with the gold star still in the window in honor of their son). There’s Miss Alma's Tea Room, Haygood's photographic studio, the Western Union, and the post office, the Telephone Company, and the florist shop. Then comes the A & P and the VFW Hall on the corner. It’s a happy town, a clean town, where people’s lawns are well maintained, houses are freshly painted, and everyone is cheerful
-- not rich and not free from the problems plaguing mankind, but somehow pulling through.
And there is one more thing that binds the little town together: Dorothy Smith’s radio show, called the Neighbor Dorothy radio show, broadcast live between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. on station WDOT 66 on the dial, from her living room.
Dorothy is a plump, sweet-faced woman with the big, wide-open face of a young girl. In 1948, she is in her fifties and yet she looks just like she did in first grade.
The day -- the red-letter day, June 1, 1948 -- when they put the radio tower in Neighbor Dorothy’s backyard, is a monumental milestone for the town. No one ever forgets that, and the sight of the red blinking bulb in the night sky is a reassuring sight. It reminds and comforts people, makes them feel connected somehow.
Her radio show is the most listened-to among the homemakers in the Midwest. It's the radio show nobody ever misses;
the town comes to a virtual standstill during that half-hour.
Schoolteachers schedule study periods so that they can hear it in the teacher’s lounge, and farm wives drop everything to listen in.
If Dorothy gives out a recipe for pound cake one fine day, you can bet your last dollar that most families will be having that as dessert that night.
Besides, her show is like Oprah -- full of surprises. You never know who will show up to sing, to dance, or to talk.
She announces upcoming events, hands out household hints and shares little pieces of wisdom.
There are some regulars, like Mother Smith, who play the organ to match the mood; Ruby Robinson, the radio nurse, with her cheerful home remedies; Beatrice Woods, the petite blind woman who sings like an angel; the Reverend Audrey Dunkin, the minister, who often drops by for an inspirational talk or to read an inspirational poem; and a handbell choir from the First Methodist church. People listen for the local news and all the other reasons, and for the enduring fact that we also meet Bobby,
Dorothy's ten-year-old son, who is always up to something as he bounds in and out of the living room.
He grows, goes to college and becomes a young man, seemingly untouched by his mother and her radio show. But one day, when he is asked to write a piece for the Reader’s Digest, he spends days thinking about kings, queens, prime ministers and other interesting people. In the end, however, he realizes that the ‘most unforgettable character’ he has ever met was Dorothy, who just happens to be his Mom.
There is a whole story behind how Dorothy got her own radio show, anyway.
After high school, Dorothy graduated from the Fannie Merit School of Home Economics in Boston, came home, married Doc Smith
(local pharmacist at Rexall) and taught school for a while until she had her first child, Anna Lee.
She decided to stay at home with her because she had asthma, and her husband agreed with her. While she stayed home, she baked. Her stuff was good enough to be in a bakery and soon her lemon, banana, cherry, caramel, cherry, chocolate, maple and jelly roll cakes were drooled over and sought out.
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.
Therefore, it was only natural that she happened to be at the Mayfair Auditorium on the Home Demonstration Day giving out the recipe for her circus cake on the radio.
While listing the ingredients, chatting casually, she added 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 declined
to mention that she could not drive over forty miles a day, back and forth, between home and the radio station in Poplar Bluff.
The next thing she knew, the radio tower was in her backyard and Golden Flake was
Apart from the main plot following Dorothy, there are many subplots, such as the rise of Minnie Oatman, lead vocalist of the Oatman Family Gospel Singers
(of course, their popularity soars after an appearance on the Neighbor Dorothy show); Cecil Figgs, the Funeral King who specializes in organizing funerals as if they are extremely special events; and Hamm Sparks, the dissatisfied tractor salesman who reinvents himself to run for public office and succeeds.
He runs the state with two women at his side, his quiet wife, Betty Raye, and his flamboyant mistress, Vita Green, who join hands in an odd turn of events.
One of Flagg’s greatest achievements lies in chronicling middle class characters
who struggle to just survive daily. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they break even, but they survive. They rarely win, but they accept that and have developed their own philosophy to get up. And they are unforgettable.
For the opening of the book, Flagg uses an unusual technique: she picks one of the characters in the town to introduce herself and recommend the book, which works because it piques the reader’s interest, straightaway.
Tot Whooten, the town’s hairdresser, writes that she is not "the main character" or a
"professional critic," but she can "highly recommend" the book "without any qualms." It is a book she says she likes because it has
"a beginning, a middle, and an end and hopefully a plot and a few laughs in between."
A good thing too, because she absolutely hates a "book that jumps around." Flagg allows Whooten
to quickly sum herself in a few sentences:
"I own my house, keep it clean and I
pay my taxes. I have never been to jail…I still work for a living although I
sometimes wonder why because with all the taxes I pay I could just as well stay
home and collect my benefits and do just as good but when I don’t fix hair for a
few days, my hands get all itchy."
She has little cause for happiness and is referred to as ‘Poor Tot’ because her husband, James Whooten, was the town drunk.
Even though she is remarried to someone who does not drink at all, she still has endless problems: her children are big trouble and bad things have the habit of happening to her.
She wryly notes some: She admits that she "cannot depend on my own children but that is another story." She has to go in each day to make sure that her daughter
"does not ruin another customer’s hair (a few hairs fall out and they want to sue) or burn the place down again. Besides, she needs the money, as she is
"still paying on the car that Dwayne Jr. wrecked, not once but twice."
Perhaps she stays good-natured because of the tremendous support meted out by the entire town, which loyally patronizes her beauty parlor
even if they have to suffer the aftereffects of ruined hair color and styles. Whooten shares her losses and gains with the readers as often as she can: She ends the book with
"It’s Tot again, with a late update…I have married again…He is a retiree from the poultry business with good benefits, a widower – i.e., no living wife or ex-wives, children, dog or cat…he owns (totally paid for) a tan and brown Winnebago and doesn’t drink…."
And this book will make all the readers happy too, with its feel-good values and wistful longing for an age gone by.
"P.S. : I am happy for the first time in my life."