After a lovely evening at the Korean Cultural Center celebrating the work of the Peace Corps, I've thought to share the story of A Brand New Life by French-Korean filmmaker Ounie Lecomte. The film is made into a gentle, naturally occurring montage with little music. It begins with an adorable girl riding on the front of a bike with her father. She inhales happily. She puts on new black dress shoes. Her name is Jinhee. She and her father have dinner together and she sings him a song. "You'll never now how much I loved you. You'll regret it one day when time has passed."
It is 1975 and a bus near Seoul pulls over and Jinhee gets out. She is told by her father to hurry and as the whole bus waits, she pees behind a haystack. Her new black shoes get stuck in the mud.
She hugs her father after he washes her feet in a restroom. He pulls his arms away from her and says, "Let's go buy the cake." They stop at a bakery and Jinhee cannot decide which cake to buy. Her father tells her to buy what looks most delicious and then Jinhee is seen carrying a white box with yellow ribbon, proudly and happily. She walks along next to her father who tells her to get along with the other children and to do what the adults tell her.
She asks him if he is leaving and he says, "No. I am going in with you." They ring the bell at a gate for a very austere building. Other girls, dressed in drab play clothes watch Jinhee with curiosity as she carries her cake in, while wearing a party dress and her nice black shoes.
A nun leads them to an office space where a professional looking man in a sweater, Mr. Khoo and another nun greet them. One of the nuns offers to take Jinhee on a tour and so Jinhee goes with her though she looks scared and confused. Her father goes into the office and for the first and only time in the film is his face fully shown. He looks sad, a little overwhelmed perhaps, and Jinhee is taken into a school room to introduce herself but runs away toward the gate. In her party dress and purple coat she sees her father walking away from the closed gate upon the country road and Mr. Khoo heading back to the building with his head down and holding the cake in its big white box with yellow ribbon.
The orphans share the cake among themselves, the smaller ones getting pieces. They don't have plates but hold the cake in their hands. They all say grace upon the manager's instruction, "Thank you Father in heaven for the yummy cake." Sookhee, one of the older girls of about 12 years of age wants cake too. But it is for the younger girls.
It is not known exactly what Jinhee's father said to her but the manager of the orphanage goes through a pile of clothes, picking out something to fit Jinhee. And while she does this, she says to Jinhee, "You sure? He really said that?" Jinhee is sure and the manager has to tell her matter of factly while trying to get her to change into a red sweater that her father lied to her. "My Daddy's not a liar!" replies Jinhee while refusing to make eye contact. She doesn't want to change into the red sweater.
She hides in some bushes in the yard and the older girls pick on her by poking her with sticks. Jinhee stays in the bushes past dark, then she runs inside, once she is scared and hungry enough. She goes into a lit but sparse kitchen and takes a bowel placed over her piece of cake, except the cake is not there. Jinhee is found by the manager and one of the nuns asleep on the kitchen floor. She is picked up by the sweet manager whose name is never known, and taken to bed.
The next morning Jinhee wears her red sweater and does not want to eat. The manager tells her not to waste food, which causes Jinhee to knock all her breakfast, three bowels, off the table and onto the floor. The mistress tells Jinhee she is staying until she cleans it up. Sookhee cleans it up for her but tells her to stop acting like a baby.
Jinhee continues to give the orphanage holy hell. She insists to Mr. Khoo that she is not an orphan and does not belong there. She wants to call her father but Mr. Khoo tells her he does not have her father's number. Her father told her she was going on a trip. Mr. Khoo reminds Jinhee that she is not the only child there who was either given up or rejected by her parents. Not all are orphans because their parents are physically dead.
She tries to climb the wall to get out and the manager, who is hurt and fed up says to her, if you really want to go, the gate is open. Jinhee climbs down and walks out of the gate along an open, desolate and unpaved road. It is a little surreal to see such a little girl walking along such a road by herself.
Jinhee comes back when she is hungry to be in the kitchen with a huge bowel of rice by herself. In her night wanderings Jinhee comes across Sookhee cleaning period-blood stained clothes in a bowel. Sookhee warns Jinhee that if she opens her mouth she will kill her as Sookhee does not want anyone to know she is menstruating.
The orphanage, though unadorned, is clean and professionally run. All the girls have to go to Mass, and are given shots, eye tests and are screened for academic levels. Jinhee can divide 3 digit numbers which, for the third grade level, is quite good.
She tells, the Doctor testing her school levels by asking her to fill in colors in shapes, that she is in the orphanage because her father came home with a new wife and baby. Jinhee held the baby but it would not stop crying. The baby was stuck by a pin and Jinhee was blamed for nearly killing the baby. The Dr. tells Jinhee that she is really at the orphanage because her father wanted her to have a better home, which is true enough in ways. Jinhee is given a number to wear on her shirt that says K-2808. Her picture is taken with the tag on and Jinhee does not smile for the photo.
Jinhee and Sookhee crouch over an injured bird and Jinhee asks Sookhee why she doesn't do something about the bleeding as she could die. Sookhee smiles and explains the blood is from her period and all women get one. And that it doesn't mean she is having a baby just that she can have a baby.
The girls also spy on Yeshin, a teenage orphan, with a bad leg, who makes the point that not every orphan wishes to leave. Though their home is starkly utilitarian, the girls are educated, if not given many books or films. But they are familiar with stories. Yeshin is at home and does not want to leave fearing she will become nothing more than a servant for the couple that wishes to have her.
Jinhee and Sookhee adopt the bird and try to get it to eat. Yeshin gives a love letter to a fellow who comes and goes on his bike. He returns the gesture with a letter of his own that he hands to Sookhee through the bars of the gate. Sookhee hands the letter, without reading it, to Yeshin as instructed, and Yeshin; excited to receive the letter is devastated by its contents.
Rain pours down and the two best friends bring the bird in a box inside. Yeshin leaves to find her lover and is in trouble for her efforts. The manager, is a good mother to the girls. The bird does not survive and is given a proper ceremonial burial. Just as the prayer is finished, the manager rushes out of the gate with Yeshin on her back and two nuns at her side. Later in the day both Sookhee and Jinhee are interviewed for adoption. Jinhee stares with her chin pointed down and refuses to speak to the adoptive parents.
Yeshin is brought back to apologize to everyone for attempting suicide while the girls giggle and laugh at her until she begins to laugh herself. Yeshin is lead out with an elderly couple without the usual farewell. She looks back at her home one more time and a nun asks her if she has forgotten something. She goes and Mr. Khoo locks the gate behind her. The mistress beats at carpets and looks like she wants to cry. It is winter now.
Sookhee teaches the girls English. She is adopted by the parents Jinhee would not speak to. The girls sing auld lang syne to Sookhee and she is driven away through the gate by her parents. Jinhee, without her best friend, continues to act up, cutting up dolls given to them for Christmas. She rips off the dolls' heads, their arms and legs until a ravaged torso is all that is left. The manager slaps her across the face, then takes Jinhee outside and hands her a stick to beat the laundry with. Jinhee does this as she cries.
Mr. Khoo, at Jinhee's request, did everything he could to find her parents but they are no longer living in the same place. The owner of a rice store, near the house, did not know where they had moved to. Jinhee says she is not feeling well in the morning and while everyone is away for Mass, digs a grave and then commences to bury herself alive. The dirt covers her face but Jinhee cannot keep it that way.
She breaks through and brushes off the earth to stare at the sky. She is given photos of the French family wanting to adopt her. Jinhee flies to meet them at the airport, and under her bangs, her adorable black eyes gaze at her brand new life.
By Sarah Bahl
The first time I saw A League of Their Own was in a movie theater during the summer of 1992 when I was in junior high. My family was at the theater as part of a group of AAU families as it was during one of my older sister Sheila's team basketball tournaments taking place in the South. She played for the Lady Classics, an all girls basketball team, that was the best in the nation, including Alaska and Hawaii, for two years in a row. There really can be something special about being part of a team no matter the sport. To be part of something higher than oneself and that those girls, who are women now, were the best ball players in the country is one thing to read about. It's of whole other moment to see. Jewel, Peppie, Moe...it was incredible to see them move. I'll never forget the way Jewel could dribble and spin, as if she was born with a basketball in her hands. She was an unbelievable athlete. When she'd shoot, she'd jump with her spine straight but forward, her legs under her and up to two feet or so in the air in a poise she seemed to hold for a full second before the ball even left her hands in a crisp and clean shot that would almost always go in. A time toward the end of the team she missed a shot, as it veered off the back of the rim, and the crowd went silent as Jewel never missed. She just didn't. I still remember the smell of the gym, the sound of the crowd, and the sweet tangy taste of Starbursts and the comforting taste of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, as I was always getting snacks from the simple table top stands. Or reading books curled up in the backseat of the car on the way to and from games.
The film begins with Dottie Hinson, as an old woman living in a suburb with her daughter; Dottie taps her fingers on a doily covered dresser top, her wedding ring shines still and then she pulls unusually well organized and starched shirts out of drawers as she begins to pack. Hers is a cheerful room with sunflowers. Dottie is elegant looking, tall with sloping shoulders and wearing pearls, a long plaid skirt and cream colored sweater. Her beautiful red hair is cut short. Her daughter enters the room and playfully tosses an old fashioned catcher's mitt onto Dottie's nicely laced cream colored clothes. Her daughter comments that the glove needs oil, after Dottie slams her fist into it, impressively hard for an elderly lady, "Who doesn't?" Dottie quips back.
Dottie, the Queen of Diamonds, is shy about going to an event celebrating the All American Girl's Professional Baseball League. When she gets to the ball park with her old colleagues playing baseball, she remembers back to how it all began. With men off to fight in World War II it was found that to keep baseball going, women needed to play. According to a black and white newsreel, Mr. Lowenstein, a businessman, is given the job by Mr. Harvey of the chocolate bar company, to be the brain child to figure out how to keep baseball going.
The scene changes to Willamette, Oregon 1943 where young women are playing dairy business sponsored softball - two pretty and red haired sisters: a young Dottie and Kit, argue about how Kit should swing at high pitches. Kit strikes out and Dottie hits a home run. There is never ending competition between the two. Dottie is taller than Kit. Perhaps prettier too. Kit complains, while they are on a walk back home to their farm, how their father introduces them to people, "This is our daughter, Dottie. And this is our other daughter, Dottie's sister." Dottie seems to win at everything as the sisters race through the farmyard like little girls.
Ernie Capadino, a portly scout for Walter Harvey takes a keen interest in Dottie's skill. Both girls are milking cows when Ernie enters the barn and recruits Dottie, or tries to as Dottie isn't interested. She is married, her husband is at war, and she does not want to cause any disturbance to her current way of life or marriage.
Neither Ernie, nor the girls are on friendly terms with each other, though there are mutual interests involved as Ernie needs to recruit the best and the League, if they made it would pay the girls $45.00 more per week than what they make at the dairy. Dottie goes to tryouts in Chicago because Kit, the less appreciated one really wants to see the world in a different way than can be done from the perspective of a small town farmworker. On the way to tryouts they stop, with the scout, in Colorado to see another girl Marla, play. She can hit incredibly well, both left and right sides, but Capadino does not want her because she is not as pretty as most of the girls chosen to play baseball for Harvey.
Dottie and Kit both, put their suitcases down in protest at Capadino's choice and so Marla ends up coming with them to Chicago. The girls are in awe of Wrigley Field, when they arrive, and the ever sarcastic scout says, "Hey cowgirls, see the grass? Don't eat it." The girls tryout and the scenes accompanied by band swing music are a lot of fun. Both Kit and Dottie make the list of those who will stay and play for the year. One woman, Shirley Baker cannot read, not even her own name, and another girl looks on the list for her to tell her, if she made the team. The girls applaud and it seems a supportive atmosphere. The women are not happy about playing baseball in short skirts. Beauty and charm school are mandatory. The girls are to be chaperoned with no men or alcohol allowed.
Jimmy Dugan, a once prime professional player, is lowered to the stance of coaching women's baseball (God forbid) and for their first game as a team he stumbles into the locker room, pees, then leaves but not before he tears up a baseball card given to him to sign. The card belonged to a girl's husband. Jimmy steps out of the dugout, and smiles while waving his hat in the air and cursing the fans under his breath. Dottie takes over as coach, given Jimmy's inebriated state and general attitude. It continues to go harshly as there are not so many fans as expected and the girls are heckled but one shows spirit by knocking out the heckler with a ball. The Rockford Peaches win and when Lowenstein, who was watching the game, asks Jimmy why he wasn't coaching and just sat there scratching his balls instead, as there are some pretty good ballplayers among those women, Jimmy responds with, "I haven't got ballplayers. I've got girls."
But it is hard for a group to live, travel and work together without seeing each other as people at some point, otherwise there would not be a team. Jimmy and Ms. Cuthbert, the chaperone get to know each other as Ms. Cuthbert becomes quite ill from food poisoning, as Mae, who plays center, poisons her dinner so they can all go out for a night of swing dancing, drinking and fun. Lowenstein also oversees the team as their general manager. Dottie stays in at first as she is married, but leaves to the Suds Bucket to warn the girls that Lowenstein is coming out and if they get caught they are out of the league. Dottie has the natural personality of a shepherd. She wants to make sure everything is in its place. And that people are all together just right.
Kit and Dottie continue to fight as Kit feels that as long as Dottie is around then she is nothing. This is not true, but it starts to feel that way. Dottie nearly leaves the league altogether because she doesn't like disagreements or for anyone to be upset with her; just when ticket sales are hurting the worst. But she talks to Lowenstein about it, and he trades Kit rather than Dottie to raise scene. At their group house Kit throws a ball near Dottie's head and calls her a bitch as Kit never wanted to be traded. The ball breaks through a window. Dottie is shocked and told Kit she told them to trade her. Kit responds with, "Oh yeah, they'd really trade you. Miss Star. Miss Perfect!" And then Kit runs upstairs to her room with Dottie after her and the whole house listening in. Dottie tells Kit to "Blow it out your rear end. I'm the one who got you into this league goddammit." And so it goes between the two. Already simmering tensions hit a crescendo and Kit leaves to join the Racine Belles. (Though one wonders if team members were allowed to be that bratty during the 1940s). She will always be emotional and being around her sister made it that much more so. But she had a lot of spirit and without Kit, Dottie would never have had the time of her life playing ball like she did. The two meet each other in The World Series and for once, Kit hits a high pitch, to make it a home run. She knocks out Dottie who is catching at the home plate, Dottie drops the ball and the Belles win.
The film really grants insights into the time and how much baseball was an outlet financially and socially. It raised up a lot of women who had little education during the hard times of The Great Depression. Though, it made clear during the film that women known to be of color at the time were excluded, the AAGPBL broke many barriers for how women were viewed physically and in society.
By Sarah Bahl
Saving Mr. Banks opens with a dose of nostalgia. A man's voice narrates, "Wind's in the East, mist comin' in. Like something is brewing, about to begin," to a musical score by Thomas Newman, as the scene pans from the clear open sky to a wealthy, gazebo'ed garden, with a little girl in a cream dress sitting upon a manicured green lawn as if she were about to lay an egg, arms wrapped about her knees, face upward toward the sunshine. She is surrounded by a sort of construction of flowers, and sticks, within her own world, as only a little girl can be.
Then the scene flips to Sunday, April 2, 1961. The home office of a woman who has come to be known as P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). Enters, Mr. Russell, her agent, into her abode. They argue over what the outcome of her situation should be. Her situation being that the market for her very popular Mary Poppins children's books has dried up.
Also, Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being named, has hit a writer's block and so, no more books shall be coming in for awhile. Mr. Russell and Mrs. Travers go back and forth on what her options are in terms of present and future financial floatability. It seems Mr. Russell's arguments are that her future creative prospects lie within the hands of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who wants to make her books into a film, and has been trying to do so for 20 years. But Mrs. Travers, is deeply attached to the characters of her own creation and would very much rather not relinquish any rights and insists upon final say in the writing of the script.
And so, it is decided Mrs. Travers shall go to Los Angeles, California. A journey reminiscent of her childhood, when her father was either severely demoted or fired from a prestigious position at an Australian bank to relocate himself and his family to a much more rural location. The family leaves their Victorian styled home and walks to the rail station as they cannot afford a carriage.
The current Mrs. Travers is picked up at the L.A. airport by a Disney sponsored driver and air conditioned car. The driver, who we learn toward the end, has the name of Ralph (Paul Giamatti), is amiable toward Mrs. Travers despite her terse and persnickety manner toward everything both Californian and Disney, not to mention toward anything Ralph says or does in general. Though, her present journey is much more luxurious than her childhood conditions, at times.
The 1961 Mrs. Travers frets over the heat and appears overdressed for California weather. She very much evokes the persona of a spinster who has lost her prime and it is everyone else's fault she has to change in order to swim with the tide; in attitude, style of life and manner. She enters her hotel room to find it filled with an enormous fruit basket and all sorts of Disney paraphernalia, including large stuffed cartoon characters, and the first thing she does is throw all the pears from the fruit basket out the window, to the surprise of onlookers as the pears plop into the pool. Mrs. Travers, then without explanation promptly shuts the window.
The scenes constantly flip back and forth between childhood and the current psychological mannerisms of Mrs. Travers in a manner reminiscent of La Vie en Rose. The heart of the matter is how two people, such as Walt Disney with his love of cartoons that are his family, and P.L. Travers, with her dislike of change and her love for her creations that are her family, can ever merge together to create a masterpiece.
Disney is stubbornly territorial over P.L. Travers' work, as he courts her creative genius for twenty years to get what he wants. He does what it takes to get it. Putting aside his own psychological problems from childhood to attend to her needs and understand a woman he finds to be a complete conundrum.
Pamela, as Walt calls her, disagrees with much of the film script and for understandable reasons. Though, her manner is lofty, perhaps because she is in the weaker position. She flat out insults Walt's love for cartoons, and cartoons are his family. He takes breaths and steps away and then continues to negotiate. He finds that the story is not really about a nanny who comes to save children, though the original book was based on P.L. Travers' experiences as a child when her aunt comes to visit and saves her and her sisters by keeping the household running after their father has died and the mother fallen into despair.
Eventually Pamela signs over the rights to allow Disney full control of the film script. But he has to fully understand her first. Pamela's childhood is an interesting one. Her father, a known drunk, humiliates the family in public, falling off stage while giving a speech for the bank. But this does not mean he does not love his daughter better than most men could ever love a child. He was an ill man. But he taught his daughter to love herself. Saving Mr. Banks brings up the interesting conundrum that simply because one's father is technically a total inebriated loser does not mean he is still not the best daddy in the whole wide world. He taught her to fight for herself in ways he could not seem to do so for his own self.
Pamela is not vicious, just the type of person who is rough around the edges until she is known better, rather than is the opposite as with most other people. Then once she does allow Disney all rights and three years later in 1964 when the film is produced, she is not invited to the Hollywood screening. Walt thought that since she does not do well with so much attention and cameras it would be best for her not to come. But she comes anyway, and cries throughout the piece, especially at the end.
By Sarah Bahl
I was first introduced to Fried Green Tomatoes at the movie theater, in 1992. My mother thought it would be a good film for my grandmother, Mary McGraw, and for my sister and myself to enjoy; and it was. My grandmother, born on August 6, 1917; grew up as part of a large family in a small Irish town, in Western Maryland. The film would remind my grandmother of what she was used to growing up, my mother explained. The film is filled with those old large wooden houses, with the wrap around porches and the sound of a large noisy family.
My grandmother took after her mother as the family beauty, and was graced with singing, musical and artful talents. As a child I knew she loved films and TV shows and she always had the radio on to classical music. My grandmother has been for some years now, buried in Arlington National Cemetery with my grandfather, Dennis McGraw.
Every family has its own dramas, hopes and legacies. My grandmother grew up in a small town, South of the Mason Dixon line. This might be considered an old fashioned stereotype: but if there is one thing Southern American women can do: it’s talk. As well as cook…and eat…and talk some more. And so from this premise is born Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The novel begins with the Whistle Stop Cafe news bulletin announcing the 1929 opening of the town’s only cafe. The writer’s name is Dot Weems. There are few things cuter than a little Southern woman named, Dot, working at the post office and writing weekly news bulletins in which she makes fun of her own husband half the time.
Now, if one is the kind of woman who eats ice cream sandwiches for breakfast, (me), then she would want the writer to skip to the good stuff…cafe? A Southern cafe? What is on the menu? Well, here we are:
“For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a bbq plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert – for 35 cents…the vegetables are: creamed corn; fried green tomatoes; fried okra; collard or turnip greens; black eyed peas; candied yams; butter beans or lima beans. And pie for desert. My other half, Wilber, and I ate there the other night, and it was so good he says he might not ever eat at home again. Ha. Ha. I wish this were true…Dot Weems.” The Weems Weekly, Whistle Stop Alabama’s neighborhood information letter, gives all the needed information for everyone in Whistle Stop.
Then, the narrative flips to December 1985; a woman, Evelyn Couch who, with her husband, has just arrived at Rose Terrace to visit her mother-in-law, Big Momma. Evelyn cannot stand sitting around and watching television with them, so she takes the only sweet thing in her life at the moment; a candy bar, then goes to silently and singularly shove her face in the cold, sterile, visitors’ lounge.
But instead of sweetness and solace, Evelyn finds herself next to a large boned, chatty old woman; “Now, you ask me the year somebody got married…who they married…or what the bride’s mother wore, and nine times out of ten I can tell you, but for the life of me, I can’t tell you when it was I got to be so old. It just sort of slipped up on me.” The 86 year old woman, is a Mrs. Cleo Threadgood, “It’s funny, when you’re a child you think time will never go by, but when you hit about twenty, time passes like you’re on the fast train to Memphis,” Mrs. Cleo Threadgood, a.k.a. Ninny, continues. Ninny, who never had a driver’s license, and had never lived anywhere but Whistle Stop until she is at Rose Terrace.
Ninny came to keep Mrs. Otis, her friend, company. And it is a good thing she did, because Evelyn Couch needed a friend for herself more than ever. Though friendship is not what Evelyn initially sought when she entered that visiting room, but it is what she found.
Evelyn was 48 years old and had discovered the world was not as she had always been taught it would be. The bad girls in highschool who had gone “all the way,” had not ended up living in ruin and disgrace, but were either happily or unhappily married like everyone else. Evelyn had waited until her wedding night and found out it hurt. But, not nearly as much as giving birth. The doctor told her she would forget the pain as a natural defense mechanism. The doctor, was either a fool or a liar. Evelyn remembered every bit of the pain. And birthing pain hurt just as much the second time around.
She had two children, a girl and a boy. When her daughter had grown up, she wanted to know how many men Evelyn had slept with. Evelyn had only ever been with her husband. Her daughter was shocked, “Oh mother, how dumb. You don’t even know if he is any good or not. How awful.”
And her daughter was right. Evelyn had no idea if Ed was any good or not. Evelyn had been part of her highschool’s golden circle, in the 1950s. A smiling cheerleader, Evelyn never knew the names of the boys in the band nor those of the girls with the see-through blouses. She never cared to know.
And now, at 48, Evelyn Couch had woken up. Not that she hadn’t tried to be a fuller person along the way. She tried to raise her son to be sensitive but Ed told her he would turn out, “queer,” so she stopped. And her son became only an apparition to her; a stranger.
Evelyn thought about the War in Vietnam but Ed had told her that anyone against the war was a communist. So, she never argued, but it did occur to her sometime after the war was over that maybe it had not been such a “good war” after all. One day in her mid forties Evelyn, with her shopping cart, stared into a vast array of TV screens, all for sale. Evelyn honestly wondered who the fat, pretty little woman was and what she was on TV for. Then Evelyn realized with horror it was her own reflection. Time had taken Evelyn with it, and she never once demanded an answer from Time, nor ever even asked Time any questions.
Evelyn was lost. She had awoken from the dream of her life, to realize she did not know where she was nor what she was doing there. The dull torpids of Americana, stared her in the face: TV, grocery shopping, air conditioned car, a husband who spends hours at the Home Depot looking for nothing. She wanted to seek comfort from Ed, but he was just as lost as she was.
At their 30th highschool reunion Evelyn prayed for an answer. A true connection in the dark, nebulous emptiness that was her life. But all the other wives looked just as scared and confused as she felt; clinging to their drinks and husbands as if they were about to plunge over a cliff.
Evelyn had spent her whole life doing everything because someone else told her to. She feared names. She never had more than one drink at a party, as she did not want a reputation. She got married as to not be thought of as frigid, she waited until her wedding day, so she would not be called a slut. Evelyn had done everything she was supposed to her whole life…and she now had no real girlfriends nor job. She went to Christian women gatherings were she was told all those successful career women were secretly lonely and miserable. Evelyn had a hard time picturing Barbara Walters giving it all up for Ed Couch, but alright.
It was her duty to save her marriage, as far as she knew. Ed, at one point was having an affair with some woman from work and Evelyn tried to sex up her marriage by dressing up in nothing but saran wrap and answering the door for Ed. (It was what the Christian womens’ circle told her to do.) Ed just pushed her to the side when he came in from work and asked her if she had gone crazy. Self-esteem was not coming to Evelyn from all directions, to say the least.
Ed’s affair ended and the situation settled down, but still, Evelyn did not have enough for herself. Instead of them working on losing weight together, Ed would look at Evelyn “whenever she had anything fattening to eat and said in mock surprise, ‘Is that on your diet?’” So, Evelyn ate in secret, alone with whatever she could find that was sweet. “Evelyn stared into the empty ice cream carton and wondered where the smiling girl in the school pictures had gone.” She bought the ice cream from Baskin Robbins, telling the sales clerk, it was for her grandchildren. She did not have any grandchildren.
But, if Evelyn had not escaped for something sweet she would never have met Ninny Threadgood. Ninny, with her stories of times gone by. So, when Evelyn came the following Sunday and all other Sundays, clutching her Almond Joys and her Snickers as if they were the Bible, and sat down in the visitors lounge, she really had no choice but to listen to Ninny with her stories of the Threadgood family.
“The front yard had an old chinaberry tree. I remember, we’d pick those little chinaberries all year long, and at Christmas, we’d string them and wrap them all around the tree from top to bottom.” Ninny was raised by the Threadgood family, who was the prime family of the small Southern town. Families in general, were much bigger in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, than now.
The two main characters of the family in relation to Ninny, are Buddy and Idgie, short for Eugenia; as well as Cleo, who she married. Buddy is the family darling, with a million dollar smile and the personality to match. Idgie, born a tomboy, might have been out of sorts in the family, if it were not for Buddy’s protection, for when Buddy had a football game, Idgie sat on the bench right there with him and his teammates. Buddy was popular with everyone.
When he began seeing a woman from the other side of the tracks, Buddy did what no other man in town would do. He took her right home to meet the family. It was a tragedy for everyone who knew him, when, Buddy was hit by a train while he was too busy flirting with yet another girl in town to notice the train pulling up right behind him. Trains in those days claimed, fingers, legs and lives. Children would play on the tracks and yes, one can hear the trains coming behind from behind, but not always, and especially not always fast enough.
Ninny had been kissed by Buddy, but she was one of many. Ninny always had a crush on Buddy, (who didn’t?) but she married Cleo in her 17th year. Ninny points out that the one wanted is not always the one gotten, but one can still be happy. Cleo fell in love with the tall, sweet woman who had been adopted by the Threadgood family when her parents died years before.
Evelyn learned to love and look forward to Ninny’s stories, about Idgie and Ruth especially. Ruth came into Idgie’s life the summer of 1924. Ruth was from Valdosta Georgia and was put in charge of all the Baptist Youth Activities for Momma, Mrs. Threadgood. Ruth was truly one of the most beautiful women anyone had ever seen, and Idgie was in love with her at first sight.
For some reason, for a small Southern town so viciously racist, there is little eyebrow raising toward lesbianism. It is treated the same as heterosexual love on a social basis. At least in the novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe it is. And is Idgie ever in love with Ruth.
Idgie wakes up Ruth very early one morning and with her brother’s stolen car keys, Idgie drives them both out to the country so Idgie can take Ruth on a romantic picnic. Idgie also wants to show Ruth a secret. She picks up an empty jar, walks over to where a beehive is and sticks her hand right in, to pull out some honeycomb. The bees cover Idgie head to toe in layers but by the time she walks back to where Ruth is panicking next to a tree, they have all flown away. Ruth is hysterical that Idgie might have killed herself. But Idgie was only charming bees. For Ruth, that is.
But their love was not to last that summer as Ruth was already engaged to Frank Bennett; one of the more notable lowlifes in all of literature. Frank Bennett, owned a fair amount of land from a town in Georgia and knew all the ladies. He knew them, whether they wanted to know him or not. Frank, supposedly scarred from some childhood trauma, had grown a cold heart and didn’t care what he took and who he took it from. He raped at will, with his buddies nearby, enjoying the scene or “helping” Frank Bennett along. Before the days of DNA tests and scientific proofs…if a man wanted to take in such a manner, there were only social repercussions to really stop him. And in Georgia, at that time, no one seemed to be stopping Frank Bennett.
So, when Ruth married Frank, he treated her no better than usual. All women meant one thing to Frank, including his wife. Idgie had kept an eye on Ruth since Ruth left, asking about her to the local townspeople. And when she heard from a store clerk that the clerk was not so fond of men who beat their wives, such as Frank; Idgie, went right up to Frank while he was getting a shave in the local barbershop and threatened to kill him. Then Idgie got in her car as fast as she could and drove away. The barber thought Idgie, though technically a pretty woman, must have been some crazy boy.
There was nothing more to do, until Idgie received a note from
Ruth, “Ruth 1:16-20:
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for wither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Idgie, not the symbolic sort, had no idea what the note meant. Momma Threadgood, tells her, “Well honey, it means what it says.” And she orders Idgie to take Big George, who worked for Idgie in the Cafe, and her brothers and go over to get Ruth and bring her back to Whistle Stop.
Idgie did just that, but her rescue effort met with repercussion years later when Frank ended up missing and Idgie had to stand for a murder trial in 1955. The judge threw the case out, as there was really no evidence, and in either case, the judge's daughter had died, "old before her time and living a dog’s life on the outskirts of town, because of Frank Bennett; so he really didn’t care who had killed the sonofa-.”
And so here we have a case of Southern justice. Though, Frank Bennett’s legacy is carried on in his son by Ruth, Buddy Jr., who lost an arm to the trains but not his life. Buddy Jr., then called Stump, grows to be a football hero with only one arm. And when Peggy, a highschool girl with glasses asks Stump, back from college, to the highschool dance, Stump laughs at her and tells her to come back when she’s grown some t-ts. Idgie lets Stump have it about that one, after Peggy runs into the Whistle Stop Cafe in tears and blurts the whole story out to Idgie.
Idgie outright tells Stump she did not raise him to be white trash and what if Peggy’s brother had been there? Stump said Peggy’s brother was there and he laughed too. Idgie takes the highroad and says Peggy’s brother should have had his butt whipped as well.
Idgie inquires as to Stump’s lack of dates and points out that Stump does not want to end up like Smokey Lonesome, the hobo who takes up at the Cafe from time to time. Smokey spent his childhood, or his growing years at least, in the mountains. His mother had his father arrested for making moonshine and then was bit in the face by a rattlesnake during a preaching event. Smokey and his sister were separated by surviving family, then Smokey took off for the rails and never again looked forward nor back.
Stump eventually admits to Idgie that he is afraid of being laughed at, by the girls, because of his arm. Idgie solves the problem by taking Stump over to Eva Bates’s, the same woman who Buddy loved so long before. It seems to solve the problem as when Peggy wants to go to her spring dance with Stump, despite his prior way with words toward her, he accepts.
Ninny tells this whole story and much, much more to Evelyn and it helps Evelyn connect, to raise her esteem and get through a hard part of her life. Ninny tells Evelyn she should sell Mary Kay cosmetics, with Evelyn’s great skin and good personality. Evelyn goes out and does just that.
After Ninny passes away, Evelyn goes to her gravesite and also receives from Ninny's old neighbor the last few items of Ninny’s life; all in a shoebox. Evelyn finds pictures and she realizes and is startled by how truly beautiful Ruth was. One of the most beautiful women to live on this earth and she breathed, loved and died in two small towns. Ruth probably never went so far east in Georgia as to see the ocean. In a photo, Evelyn sees Buddy, who she can recognize from his smile. Evelyn cries because she will never understand why people have to grow old and die. On the way back from Ninny’s grave Evelyn notices a jar of honey with a card by Ruth Jamison’s stone. The card is signed, “I’ll always remember. Your friend, The Bee Charmer.”
By Sarah Bahl
“Liberia, a West African country of 3 million people, was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. Their descendants formed an elite class, which dominated indigenous ethnic groups for more than a century. Rising tensions finally erupted into civil war in 1989. From then on, Liberians suffered a prolonged period of violence. At times, fighting was congregated to the countryside. Other times, conflict raged through the capital, Monrovia. By 2002, over 200,000 people had died. One out of three people had been displaced. There was no end in sight. Then, ordinary women did the unimaginable.”
The Liberian Civil War began on Christmas Eve 1989. Charles Taylor began in full earnestness, his bloody ascent to absolute political and financial power over Liberia. Taylor utilized whatever means necessary to formulate his path to a most vile form of power imaginable. Taylor had The Small Boys Unit, consisting of youths from the ages of nine to fifteen, commissioned as child soldiers. They were fed drugs and given weapons. The war to, “Reconstruct the minds of the people,” went on for years. Leymah Gbowee, a Social Worker, states, “Liberia had been at war so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives.”
The war was blamed on many factors including ethnic tensions, resources and wealth. But Gbowee states, “There is nothing in my mind that should make people do what they did to the children of Liberia.” Gbowee, had at one moment, to tell her three year old son that she had no food, no donut, to give him. Her son replied, that he hoped for a piece of donut all the same. This was after Gbowee, while five months pregnant, traveled with her three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter under a rain of bullets to her parents’ house.
The next series of scenes are of a boy, holding a skeleton in his hands and dancing with a group of other boys. The skeleton is of a human skull. A boy with his arm cut off looks ahead, his eyes accepting and full of fear. Another boy holds a gun to his head, the gun sounds, while a group of adolescents stand around. One of them smiles.
Charles Taylor, in a filmed interview says, “We had an opportunity, starting from 0 to reconstruct the minds of our people.” None of the soldiers seem to be over 17. Incredibly disturbing that their faces are those of frightened lost children, and at the same time, they brandish huge weapons. According to headlines, Taylor terrorized Liberia into electing him, in 1997. “We lived in fear,” Gbowee states. She prays for the killings, the shootings, and the hunger to stop. Gbowee says, “I had a dream and it was like a crazy dream, that someone was actually telling me,” to gather the women of the village in order to pray for peace.
The following scene occurs at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Monrovia, June 2002. Gbowee is a speaker for a congregation. She states, “We are tired…” and from the fear and exhaustion is born the Christian Women Peace Initiative; out of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. From the ordinary women of the village was born a great organization.
Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of Liberian National Police attended the service as the only Muslim in the Church. “We’re all serving the same God,” Kenneth states. She promises to move the movement forward with the Muslim women. “I wanted it to be an initiative that was going to continue,” Kenneth adds. The message the co-joined womens’ forces took on was, truly a question with an obvious answer: “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”
In opposition to Taylor is the mens’ movement, LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. “Taylor does not listen to any peace, any negotiations. That is why we are in the bush,” says National Chairman Conneh. The Warlords of the opposing council commission male child soldiers. “The Warlords would just give these boys guns and send them off. They just told them to take whatever they wanted along the way,” Gbowee states. The countryside is terrorized.
Janet Bryant Johnson, Journalist, says, “These boys would go to your home and they would rape you in front of your children, in front of your husband, and they just do anything because, they had guns.” The Warlords are said to come for absolute power in opposition to Taylor and by March 2003, LURD controls most of the countryside. Taylor is Christian and LURD is Muslim. Refugees pour into Monrovia, in overwhelming flocks with their possessions piled on their heads. People in the camps live in absolute poverty. Complete, entire and abysmal poverty.
The womens’ group came to the camp to overview the conditions. There were tears, as there seemed no hope in terms of positive outlet for the Liberians. Tales of rape and horror by soldiers abound among the camp’s occupants. (United Nations Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, notes that, ‘civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements’…In 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, characterizing sexual violence as a tool of war and demanding its immediate cessation.) Discussion Guide, Teachers College, Columbia University.
One woman was told by soldiers; to sing, to dance, and to clap, while her husband’s head was slowly sawed off and her 12-year-old daughter was raped. The woman survived but she kept singing and clapping the same tune she sang and clapped for the soldiers that day. Her daughter became pregnant from the rape.
Many women showed unusual resiliency despite the atrocities. “These woman had seen the worst of the wars, but they still had that vibrance for life.” Hope baptized the women into their movement for peace. Taylor gives a sermon regarding his mission in life and God’s protection. But his statements do not click together, and ultimately his speech makes no sense. Gbowee: “Taylor could pray the devil out of hell, and we said if this man is so religious, we need to get to that thing, that he holds firmly to.”
The women pressurized the pastors to place influence on the bishops, so it would travel to the leaders. The women of the mosques were to place insistence for peace on their imams, who would pressurize the Warlords, in turn. Both womens’ groups spoke for an end to the violence with their religious leaders.
Still, the war was closing in and only ever increasing in violent velocity. “We needed to do something more forceful, more dramatic. We decided to have a protest,” Gbowee states. The women utilized Christian radio to get their message for peace across. The Christian women seek inspiration from The Bible, particularly Ester, who wore ashes and a sackcloth. Ester says, “I mean it.” The Liberian women then put on plain white clothes and tied their hair, to symbolize the goal for peace. Thousands of women congregated to the fish market to pray for peace. For the first time in Liberian history, Muslim and Christian women joined forces. They held a banner with the slogan, “The Women of Liberia Want Peace Now.”
Over 2,500 women lined up with the placards for peace. President Taylor’s convert slows, as it goes by on the road, but does not stop and the women are left unharmed. The woman sang for peace. And danced for peace. Still, neither Taylor nor the rebels would come to the peace table. The women then presented a position statement to the government of Liberia. The women demanded peace. They were not appealing. They continue to protest wearing white.
Finally Taylor agreed to the peace talks. The talks are strained, as with Taylor it is known he could be smiling at you and the next moment order the recipient of his gaze to be killed. Peace talks occur in Ghana while Monrovia is engulfed in war. Everyone is trapped inside, away from the gunfire, without proper food supplies. Still, the women continue to sing, “Liberia is my home.” Though, the peace talks turned into discussions of how to divvy out the power, rather than how to employ peace. The missiles rain down as the women still sing and pray.
Some of the women went to Ghana and held the men inside with their protests. One of the warlords came to the door to exit and was pushed back by the women. The women wanted peace. Finally, it is agreed at the discussions for Taylor to be exiled to Liberia and for a UN peacekeeping force to enter Monrovia. A transitional government is established. On August 4, 2003, International Peacekeeping forces enter Liberia. Taylor leaves for exile, saying; “God willing, I will be back.”
The women come back from Ghana celebrating. One woman was asked how she managed and dressed in white, she replied: “With this T-shirt, I am powerful.” The violence is hard to forgive. Liberia becomes the first country in Africa with an elected female president. After 2 ½ years the womens’ peace campaign comes to a successful end.
By Sarah Bahl.