Words of Wobegon
Garrison Keillor and his adored fictional town return to Golden State Theatre.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
The Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon was founded by New England Unitarian missionaries who came to the region to convert the area’s Native American population through interpretive dance. Eventually, the settlement took the name Lake Wobegon from an old Indian word that means “the place where we waited all day in the rain for you.” Now, the postcard-worthy Midwestern town with a population of 800 residents boasts that it is the “Gateway to Central Minnesota” and is home to several small businesses including Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and The Harold Star, the local newspaper owned by Harold Star.
Though there are many rich telling details about the little hamlet that other residents of small towns across America can surely identify with, Lake Wobegon is a fictional place that sprung from the fertile mind of Garrison Keillor. His upcoming appearance at the Golden State Theatre Tuesday, Jan. 8, though billed as a monologue that’s sure to visit all sorts of subjects, both he and his audience will undoubtedly travel to Lake Wobegon at some point along the way.
In a superb article titled “In Search of Lake Wobegon: It’s in Central Minnesota” that appeared in the December 2000 of National Geographic, Keillor – an author, humorist, screenplay writer and National Public Radio personality – explained that he made up the town and its town folk to make up for the lack of community he felt after moving back to central Minnesota over 35 years ago.
At the time, the budding author was residing with his family in a rented farmhouse south of the Minnesota town of Freeport, where he was trying to live as a writer submitting stories to The New Yorker. There, he discovered that his neighboring Minnesotans had an acute fear of outsiders.
“Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970,” he wrote. “No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times I stopped by neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went.”
Keillor first introduced the idealized town to the public via his radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion. He begins the second half of each program, which is broadcast across the nation on over 450 public radio stations, with a weekly monologue called “The News From Lake Wobegon.” In his distinctive voice, Keillor notes that Lake Wobegon is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average” before going into weekly updates about the town’s baseball team The Whippets or the championship ushering team The Herdsmen.
Keillor has been able to get an impressive amount of mileage out of his creation of Lake Wobegon. He has written five semi-autobiographical books about the burg and taken home a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album format for a recorded version of his literary work Lake Wobegon Days. The made-up community is so popular that there is a “Lake Wobegon, U.S.A.” store in the Mall of America selling paraphernalia related to Keillor’s radio show, while Stearns County, Minnesota has a bike path named “The Lake Wobegon Trail” after the fictitious town. In a recent interview with the Denver Post, he also confessed that he was writing a screenplay about Lake Wobegon.
Perhaps, Keillor described the appeal of Lake Wobegon best in a book with photographer Richard Olsenius titled In Search of Lake Wobegon, which was spun off from the National Geographic article. ‘’It isn’t about me,” he says. “I find that if I leave out enough details in my stories, the listener will fill in the blanks with his or her own hometown, and if a Freeport girl exiled in Manhattan hears the story about Memorial Day, she’ll put it right smack there in that cemetery with those names on the stones, and she may think of her uncle Alcuin who went to France and didn’t return, and get out her hanky and blow. I’m not the reason she’s moved, he is. All I do is say the words, ‘mother’ and ‘blackboard’ and ‘whiskey’ and ‘outfield’ and ‘rhubarb,’ and other people put pictures to them.’’
While seeming to espouse the simple homespun ideas of small town Americana, Keillor’s creation of Lake Wobegon appears to also have a more radical agenda in these times, which is to remind Americans of the quirkiness and individuality of the nation’s towns and small cities during the cancerous growth of faceless chains and global brands. Or to quote Keillor directly, “I believe in looking reality straight into the eye and denying it.”
GARRISON KEILLOR performs 8:15pm this Tuesday, Jan. 8, at the Golden State Theatre, 417Alvarado St., Monterey. $45-$135. 372-4555 or goldenstatetheatre.com