Each Saturday night for thirteen years, from 1974 to 1987, the fans of A Prairie Home Companion eagerly awaited Garrison Keillor’s monologue on the news from Lake Wobegon. In 1985, he published a history of this imaginary northern Minnesota town modeled on his birthplace, Anoka (Lake Wobegon Days, 1985). The present book, published shortly after Keillor’s final program on June 13, 1987, returns to Lake Wobegon to record further episodes in the lives of its citizens.
All the stories begin in the same way: “It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” for at least on the surface Lake Wobegon is a peaceful town. In his monologues, Keillor noted that it is a place that time forgot, untouched by the vagaries of the economy, political scandal, or international turmoil. Conversation never strays far from the weather; the major issues that concern its inhabitants are whether to install a new furnace in the Lutheran parsonage, whether to go to Saint Cloud for the weekend. Its citizens are solid, stolid Scandinavians who, Keillor reminds the reader, “were brought up to work hard, not complain, accept that life is hard, and make the best of what little” they have. These people say, “Oh no thanks, it’s too much really, I don’t care for it.” They must be forced to go to Paradise or Hawaii, and they cannot go away for even a few days without worrying about what is happening back home.
Their foods are simple: “meat loaf, whipped potatoes, string beans, bread, and tapioca pudding, . . . cream-of-mushroom soup and the many hot dishes derived therefrom,” and they drink the local beer, Saint Wendell’s—Wendy’s for short—that has been brewed locally by the Dimmers for five generations. When Darlene makes Szechuan chicken one night, she uses more garlic “than she’d used in six years,” and her marriage collapses as a result. Keillor’s people also drive simple cars, Fords and Chevys—there are no foreign-car dealerships in Lake Wobegon—and drive them carefully. The biggest news one week is that Gary and Leroy have given someone—a nonresident, naturally—a speeding ticket. Now “if there was a law against pokiness, they could have made a mass arrest of the entire town.”
Keillor meticulously details what Joyce Maynard in her review for Mademoiselle magazine calls this “life in the slow lane.” Part of the appeal of Keillor’s stories derives from their sense of nostalgia in the root sense of that word, a homesickness for the Norman Rockwell villages, where people sit on their porches on hot summer afternoons and sip lemonade—real lemonade—before returning to their chores, where a Carl Krebsbach will come over to help fix a leaky roof and the local teenagers will interrupt a party to get someone’s car out of a ditch and then take up a collection for him.
Yet beneath this placid surface lurk the same deep passions and fears that stir people everywhere. If readers and listeners are drawn to Keillor’s verbal portraits of a more innocent era most of them have never known, they also find here a countervailing force, a restlessness like their own that drives people away from the community, into the recesses of their basements or to Minneapolis and beyond. Many of the book’s characters share the narrator’s desire to leave home, either forever or only for a little while, and several of them finally act on that impulse.
Most notorious is David Tollefson, a carpenter who in 1946 left his wife to run away with Agnes Hedder, leaving behind his five children and her two, there in a town in which “a father was as permanent as the color of your eyes.” Darlene, the thirty-eight-year-old waitress at the Chatterbox Café, also overcomes thirteen years of inertia to break away from a dead-end marriage and a dead-end job. Despite all of his relatives’ objections, Dale Uecker is joining the navy and so exchanging the limited horizons of his local lake for the world’s oceans.
Others, no less eager to escape, find leaving more difficult. Keillor ends his introductory “Letter from Copenhagen” with a narrative poem about two early settlers of Lake Wobegon, John and Ruth. They leave Newbury-port for Oregon but stop in Minnesota, two thousand miles short. No one knows until after...