From Fig Tree to Hospital
Many of us can’t wait to get to heaven, but most of us can’t come back to earth and talk about what we see there. Mrs. Elner Shimfissle of Elmwood Springs, a small town in Missouri, has that opportunity. As this comedy/mystery novel unfolds, readers experience everything with Elner in Heaven while her neighbors think she is dead.
The whole Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven adventure started when the elderly widow Elner had just wanted pick a few figs to make some preserves “for that nice woman who had brought her a basket of tomatoes.” Even though she had promised her niece Norma she would not climb that ladder to pick figs anymore, she didn’t want to bother Norma’s husband Macky for just the few figs she needed. What she didn’t know until she accidentally poked it was that there was a wasp nest in the fig tree. First she found herself “with some boy wearing a green shower cap and a green smock, all excited, talking a mile a minute to five other people running around the room, also in green shower caps, green smocks, and little green paper booties on their feet.”
I quoted these sentences to give you a feel for Elner’s way of describing things. We follow her thoughts on past hospital experiences, nurses no longer wearing white, whether she’d turned her oven off before climbing the tree, and whether her cat Sonny had eaten his breakfast. All the while she wondered what all those medical personnel were saying, since she didn’t have her hearing aids in. She is afraid of facing Norma and losing her ladder privileges for life. As she is reflecting, she finally decides to take a nap.
Meanwhile, we peak back at what has happened since Norma, who is nervous anyway, learns from a neighbor that Elner has fallen from the tree again and almost faints. We watch the town react to the news and we get to know Elner’s friends and the rest of her family.
Less than an hour after she started her nap, Elner woke up in a dark room, aware of hospital sounds, but not seeing anyone. She begins to wonder if they have all forgotten about her and whether Norma even knows she’s there. She doesn’t hurt, but after an hour she is wondering why no one has come to get her. She gets up and begins to walk toward the voices she hears. At the end of a hall of empty rooms, she sees an elevator, and it started going up before she even pushed any buttons.
Elner is Declared Dead
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, which is in St Louis, the doctor in charge of Elner’s case informs Norma and Macky that Elner is dead. Norma collapses and they barely caught her before her head hit the floor. The neighbors back in Elmwood Springs had already gotten the news of Elner’s death though a nurse at the hospital. They set to work caring for Sonny, and making sure everything at Elner’s house was turned off and secure.
We see and hear all the conversations as the neighbors and what’s left of Elner’s family absorb the news and do a bit of gossiping. At the mortuary, they have already started the arrangements, and Cathy at the Elmwood Springs Courier is considering what to write in Elner’s obituary.
Elner Discovers She’s in Heaven
Meanwhile, Elner has come to the end of her elevator ride, gets off, and has no idea where she is. As she looks up and down the clean white marble walls, someone who looks just like Ginger Rogers walks by carrying some black tap shoes and says ‘Hey!” to her before moving on. Elner finally gets to a reception desk and discovers her long dead younger sister Ida sitting behind it.
She asks Ida what she’s doing there after they all thought she was dead and had had a funeral and everything. Ida confirms it’s really her and tells Elner, “…if you recall, the last thing I said to Norma was ‘Norma, when I’m dead, for God’s sake, do not let Tot Whooten do my hair.’ I even gave her the number of my hairdresser to call, paid the woman for my appointment in advance, and what did Norma do? The first thing she did when I died was to let Tot Whooten do my hair.”
They continue to discuss the circumstances surrounding the hair issue as Elner is convinced this is indeed her sister Ida. Finally Ida gets it across to Elner that she is also dead and this is Heaven.
Elner Returns to Life
I will not tell you anymore about Elner’s adventures in Heaven, for will see them for yourself if you read the book. They ended quickly enough when Elner was sent back. As her body is about to be picked up for cremation and Norma, Macky, and Norma’s daughter Linda are silently saying goodbye, Elner startles them by saying “I know you’re mad at me, but I wouldn’t have fallen if those wasps hadn’t gone after me.”
That’s when all hell breaks loose at the hospital. The nurse screams, the doctors and staff run in from all directions with machines, and Elner is taken for an MRI. The same nurse who had told the neighbors back in Elmwood Springs about Elner’s death calls back to announce she didn’t die after all. The neighborhood grape-vine goes into reverse to call the funeral home and the newspaper, and anyone else involved in funeral arrangements.
The Hospital Calls in the Lawyers
Meanwhile, the hospital administrators are lawyering up sure they will be facing a lawsuit for declaring Elner dead too soon. We learn a bit about what goes on behind the scenes in hospitals and see hospital politics in action. Norma is immediately pressured into signing a release that includes waiving all rights to sue.
Just to be on the safe side, a sleazy lawyer, Winston Sprague, and his paralegal get to Elner alone for a deposition. Norma, the only one Elner has told about her experience in Heaven, is scared to death Elner will tell someone else and be considered crazy. Since she had promised Norma not to mention the trip to Heaven to anyone, when Elner is asked by Winston for the whole truth about the events of the day, the only out-of-body experience she mentions is being above the hospital, looking down, and seeing a brown shoe with spikes beside the chimney. What the lawyers don’t know is that Norma has no intention of suing anyway.
Norma Is Still Not Sure There’s a Heaven
Norma, meanwhile is trying to find some assurance there really is life after death. Macky doesn’t believe in an afterlife and tells Norma that people often have these near death experiences. The doctor confirms it. That ruins Norma’s hope that Elner really did go to Heaven and come back.
The Mystery and Changing Lives
The rest of the book shows us some of the best parts of small town life and how people look after each other even as they sometimes drive each other crazy with their idiosyncrasies. After Elner returns, we learn some of the secrets she’s been keeping for her friends. When Ruby, Elner’s next door neighbor, is cleaning Elner’s house, she decides to empty the laundry basket. She finds a loaded gun hidden at the bottom. She tells Macky, who tries to find out how it got there, but even when Elner returns home, she won’t tell. Only the reader hears the story.
As an indirect result of Elner’s experience, many people’s lives are changed for the better. People are portrayed realistically, and you probably know people much like them. Even Sprague becomes a better person. He is humbled when his curiosity takes him to the roof after getting keys to the locked doors. He searches everywhere and finally, almost hidden, stuck beside a chimney, he finds the shoe. He has to pry it away. Then he researches how it might have gotten there until it all makes sense. He realizes that what Elner told him was true.
Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven: My Opinion and Recommendation
I loved Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. The well-developed characters are the sort of people I wouldn’t mind having as neighbors. Their conversations and adventures kept me laughing, though the gun incident was far from funny. It showed what Elner was made of. The plot was a bit unrealistic, but it was carefully crafted to reveal the facets of each character’s personality. Given the cast of characters, it was believable.
This book will probably appeal most to those over fifty or to those raised in the South. Some characters, though aware of changing cultural values, unashamedly admit to being politically incorrect. Their comments express the values they grew up with. If those who aim to be politically correct read this, they will be sure to find something to take offense at in the things Tot Whooten, the hairdresser, says. Most people will realize that Tot is simply who she is, expressing her own opinions that the author doesn’t necessarily share. Most people will find this a hilarious read. Why not pin the photo below to share this review with your friends.
I also enjoyed Fannie Flagg’s, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. I’m looking forward to reading Fannie’s other books, some of which are listed below. I especially want to read Standing in the Rainbow. It has the same characters as Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and had I known about it , I probably would have read it first.