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Episode 325

The Long and Winding Road Through Lake Wobegon

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Posted by Mary Ann

Something occurred to me as I was watching the Well Read interview with Garrison Keillor. It’s not exactly a revelation, but…this is a guy who has made a career out of making things up. The success of his radio show, “Prairie Home Companion,” is based on his return, again and again, to the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong and the men are good looking and the children are all above average. Keillor has said that the town’s name stems from a “fictional old Indian word meaning “the place where we waited all day in the rain [for you].” Keillor is a big jokester, so I also think it has something to do with the old English word “woebegone,” which means “afflicted with woe.”

He’s a performer, first and foremost, but he’s also written any number of books, including poetry. He’s written a book about Lutherans. He’s even written a joke book! But he’s also written a number of novels. Some are set in good old Lake Wobegon itself. Others stem from other parts of the radio program. They can be very funny, but they are also look at the downside of living in a safe, somewhat cloistered place. But he makes you long for it, as he wrote in this piece published in the New York Times:

“The stories always start with the line ‘It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon’ and then a glimpse of the weather. It’s a fall day, geese flying south across a high blue sky, the air sweet and smoky, the woods in gorgeous colors not seen in Crayola boxes, or it’s winter, snowflakes falling like little jewels from heaven, and you awake to a world of radiant grandeur, trees glittering, the beauty of grays, the bare limbs of trees penciled in against the sky, or it’s spring, the tomatoes are sprouting in little trays of dirt on the kitchen counter, the tulips and crocuses, the yellow goldfinches arriving from Mexico, or it’s summer, the gardens are booming along, the corn knee high, and a mountain range of black thunderclouds is piling up in the western sky.”

A couple of things hit me while listening to the interview; notably, when he said “it’s not my role to be current…my role is to bear witness to the past.” The writing that Keillor does makes us long for the past, the Lake Wobegon version; it’s a very bittersweet feeling. At the same time, he makes you laugh at the people in Lake Wobegon; their parochial preoccupations, their fear of the big city. Here are a few of Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” books that are worth dipping into, though you’ll have to imagine his unique voice in your head as you read them:

“Lake Wobegon Days” (1987). This was the first of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon novels. It set up the fictional history of Lake Wobegon, founded by a Unitarian poet-missionary from Boston who, finding ”only woods and, to the west, the river,” thought, ”I should turn back now,” but didn’t, because it was getting dark and his wife had weak ankles. This fellow was followed by a bunch of Norwegians, including one who paid another fellow to take his place in the Civil War (this really happened). Keillor created an entire history for the town, even recreating 19th century documents attesting to historical events.

He paints the people of Woebegone as a repressed bunch – beware of stylish glasses frames and, well, air-conditioning – who knows what might happen? Like on the radio program, he has the reader simultaneously laughing and feeling endeared towards these folks.

1987’s “Leaving Home” was a collection of stories about Lake Wobegon folks. Spalding Gray, the great monologist, said in his review of this book that the stories “often begin with a description of local weather and glide through a landscape of meat loaf, roasted wieners, homemade jam and unconditional love, all falling cozily into place like a Norman Rockwell painting. But they are also perversely peppered with such contrasting earthy items as the autoignition of flatulence, cutting the heads off chickens, cancer and 68 dead pigs all on their backs with their legs turned up toward the sun.”

Gray also wrote that there’s a strong element of karma in these stories; people get what they deserve, which now that I think of it, is a strong theme in Keillor’s Lake Wobegon radio spots. Another theme: the people in Lake Wobegon cling to it as a safe place, but there’s a deep longing to leave.

2007’s “Pontoon” is about family secrets, which are well kept in a place like Lake Wobegon. Keillor tells the story of Evelyn Peterson, who after a cheerful night out with the girls, dies — in bed, while reading, “leaving behind the book, her bed and the blue knit coverlet, her stucco bungalow … redolent of coffee and fresh-picked strawberries, her bedside radio, her subscription to the New Yorker paid through the end of the year.”

So, that’s it, right? Well, no. As Evelyn’s daughter Barbara starts going through her things, she discovers that her steady old mom carried on, for years, a passionate and clandestine romance with a Minnesota radio personality! This revelation prompts changes in Barbara’s life, most for the better.

Finally, Keillor has written a religious book of sorts: “Life Among the Lutherans,” published by Augsburg Fortress, a Lutheran Press. It features portraits of people who attend the (fictional) Lutheran church in Lake Wobegon. Keillor was raised in a fundamentalist household, and though he’s left that behind, he’s retained a lifelong interest in religion. I think this might be the book of Garrison Keillor’s I want to read the most, because when you talk about religion you’re revealing some of your own world view. Also, his next book of limericks, of course.

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