Lake Wobegon Summer 1956


by Garrison Keillor (Viking, 2001)


I admit it. I am a "Prairie Home Companion" junkie. Although my Alabaman wife loves country music, she refers to the bands Keillor favors as "clang clangers" and I have to force her to listen to even the best parts of his dialogs -- like his takes on the Minnesota governor. Of course, I know what those good bits are because I listen to the same program twice each weekend.


And this year Keillor has produced another in his series of novels about this fictitious town in the middle of Minnesota. This one, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, follows a junior high school student's activities and associations through that year. Gary's adventures are a perfect take on the behavior of adolescents. They are only lightly bound together by a rather sad subplot about his cousin Kate.


For those familiar with Keillor's story-telling, all his now familiar types are here and they begin even on that standard page that lists the author's past writing. He has included a "Coming Soon" section that will immediately attract the Keillor lovers and turn off the rest of the world. Here are those titles: "Suspicious Behavior: How to Recognize it, How to Deal With It"; "Are You Too Nice for Your Own Good? Changing the Type C Personality to Double D"; "What You May Not Know About Glutens"; "Appraising Your Hedgehog Collectibles"; "The Case of the Hideous Guest (A Mrs. Whistler Mystery)"; "More You Can Do with Mangoes"; "The Fifteen Minute Parent"; and "Using What We Know About Plants to Deepen Our Relationships at Home and Work".


If you are still reading, you're one of us and you'll find yourself chuckling over passages like these:


"Tonight Mother is in a lighthearted mood because Aunt Doe is sick and can't come up from Minneapolis to decorate Grandpa's grave on his birthday.


"'She called and said she has a bad case of the trots,' says Mother. 'Poor thing.' Daddy breathes a long sigh of relief. Doe is a weeper, a sob sister of the first water, and Daddy cannot tolerate crying, he has to evacuate the room whenever it rears its head, one sniffle and he is up and out of his chair.


"Doe is a skinny minnie with mouse-colored hair who tries so hard to be no trouble to anybody and stay out of everyone's way and make no demands whatsoever on anyone, and if you ask her what she'd like to eat for lunch, or what she wants to do after lunch, she only whispers, 'Whatever you have left over. Don't fix anything special for me. A piece of bread is more than good enough. Whatever you have extra of. Water is fine. If you want to go someplace after lunch, I can just sit here and look out the win­dow. I'm happy. It's fine with me. Make it easy on yourself. I'm quite content to look at an old magazine and listen to the radio. I don't need anybody to entertain me. You go do whatever you like and just pretend I'm not here.' Her visits place a huge weight on our household. The weight of meekness. Aunt Doe is sort of the Billy the Kid of meekness, a professional meeker, she has out-meeked the best of them, she can meek you to death."


What we Keillor-lovers like so much about his stories is the way they so closely approach the shortcomings, the eccentricities, the peculiarities, the idiosyncrasies, the quirks of those we know -- or, more to the point, of ourselves. This conversation could have been captured in the kitchen of my own home sixty years ago:


"'How about Chicago? We could go stay at the Blackstone.'


"'The traffic jams are unbelievable. Unbelievable. Somebody told me it now takes you the better part of a day just to get into the Loop and find a place to park. It's ten times worse than it was when we were there two years ago and it was bad then!'


"'Then you choose. Where would you like to go?'


"'It doesn't matter to me.


"Mother suggests the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore.


"'Anywhere but out west. I read that the danger of forest fires is at a twenty-year high. Montana is like a powder keg waiting to explode. I was reading an article about forest fires that said they can travel at a hundred miles an hour -- a wall of flame -- a hundred miles an hour! You could be driving top speed and not be able to escape it!'


"The truth is, Daddy hates to go anywhere and both of them know it. He is a nervous driver, one foot on the gas, one on the brake, speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down, it makes you green around the gills, but when Mother mentions it to him, he says, 'I'm doing the best I can!' This is probably true.


" -- Well, I'm not going to drag you someplace if you don't want to go, says Mother.


" -- It's up to you. I can't sleep on mushy beds, that's all.


" -- We could go to a resort.


" -- To do what? Play golf?


" -- To do whatever we want.


" -- You can do that at home.


" -- You won't even think about going to a resort?


" -- Find one that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and I'll consider it.


"The ebb and flow of my parents' conversation is so familiar to me, Mother's voice and Daddy's voice, it is like summer music, with the sprinkler whispering and the radio turned low and cars humming by on the soft asphalt and the chittering of birds and dog barks and distant thumping of boat motors and women laughing and someone playing piano scales, up and down, and the tinkling of the glass-bead contraption, Mother suggesting the North Shore of Lake Superior and Daddy saying it's too crowded there in the summer, Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock lighthouse, Grand Marais, it's like a madhouse, packed with people from Chicago.


"'I got a letter from Doe today,' Mother says. 'She may visit in July. She's all over the trots.' Daddy looks at the ceiling. This is the price of not taking a vacation: your relatives come and take a vacation with you."


You love him or you hate him. I am perfectly happy to remain in that first category.-- Gerry Rising