The centerpiece of Garrison Keillor’s weekly broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio is his “News from Lake Wobegon, the town that time forgot and that the decades cannot improve.” Since his first broadcast in 1974, his fictional meditations on the history and mores of this typical Minnesota town have gradually but quietly gained such a large audience that this collection of sketches about Lake Wobegon became a number one best-seller shortly after its appearance, far surpassing the popularity of his collection of short fiction, Happy to Be Here (1982). Though much of the material will be familiar to regular listeners to the radio monologues, much will be new, and many familiar stories appear in new contexts.
While Happy to Be Here showed Keillor’s admiration for James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, and E. B. White, Lake Wobegon Days reminds one more of the late nineteenth century regional writers and humorists, notably Sarah Orne Jewett and Mark Twain. Like those writers, Keillor seems interested, in part, in preserving the memory of a disappearing way of life; his view of a vanishing childhood landscape and culture is both loving and objective. Keillor can effectively express his love for Lake Wobegon, despite its narrowness and eccentricities, because, like Jewett and Twain, he is a master of humor.
Keillor’s Lake Wobegon evokes a small-town America which many believe is disappearing. The book approaches nostalgia when it makes clear that the town was at its height during Keillor’s boyhood, when he enjoyed the living flag, the excitement of Toast and Jelly Days and of the haystack jump at the Mist County Fair, or when he organized cat funerals and was crowned King of Altrusia in one of his fantasies of greatness. This nostalgia results both from Keillor’s own bright memories of childhood and from the reminders that though Lake Wobegon is more resistant to change than most of America, it too will pass. When the aged operator—who manages to listen to all the town news even with the new dial-phone system—passes, where will the exiled Keillor get his news?
The virtues and the vices of Lake Wobegon tend to center on its refusal to recognize the passage of time since World War II. The town’s blend of Norwegian Lutheranism and German Catholicism, both modified by a pervasive Calvinist outlook, add up to a kind of conservatism which distrusts modern conveniences and labor-saving devices. It is a virtue to own a twenty-year-old car with only forty thousand miles on it. Television and motion pictures are suspect, though more and more people indulge. Air-conditioning is faintly immoral, though it, too, is spreading. The shopping mall and retail chains are chipping away, but very slowly, at the fabric of a largely self-sufficient American small town.
The book is divided into twelve thematic chapters. “Home” introduces the town’s main characteristics, its geography, and a cross section of characters and events. This chapter also recounts the process by which Keillor became an exile, struggling against the pressures of conformity to go to college. Adolescence is difficult in Lake Wobegon because adults distrust progress. Children are not encouraged to believe in their own potential to be anything, but rather, to fear the possibility of becoming different from their parents: “So most of Lake Wobegon’s children leave, as I did, to realize themselves as finer persons than they were allowed to be at home.” When Keillor makes a return visit, the smallest lapse in his perfect memory of the town’s layout leads Father Emil, of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, to suspect that Keillor is not really from Lake Wobegon.
“New Albion” and “Forebears” present a narrative history of the founding and development of the town. Here, one of several “scholarly” footnotes reveals the origin of the town’s name: “To scholars of the Ojibway tongue, ’Wobegon’ or ’Wa-be-gan-tan-han’ means ’the place where [we] waited all day in the rain,’ but some translated the word as simply ’patience.’” The town’s checkered history includes the encampment of Unitarian missionaries dedicated to teaching the Indians Christianity by means of interpretive dance; the gloriously inflated visions of “Dr.” Francis Watt, who was created along with his visions by an ambitious land speculator; and the arrival after the collapse of this speculative bubble of the Norwegians and Germans who became the permanent settlers.
The entire history is marked by absurdity; the wildly romantic hopes of explorers, missionaries, settlers, and their descendants are rendered ridiculous, though not always valueless, by the realities of weather, mosquitoes, folly, and passion. For example, there is the rivalry among...
(The entire section is 1973 words.)