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Arland O. Fiske: The Norwegians of Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor, the creator of the Lake Wobegon stories, is one of Americas best known folk humorists. His tales about the mythological Minnesota village told on American Public Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” has listeners all over the United States. His book Lake Wobegon Days (1985) soared immediately to the top of the best seller lists and was featured as a Book of the Month selection.

Two ethnic and religious groups are in the center stage of Lake Wobegon. They are the German Catholics and the Norwegian Lutherans. Keillor himself was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a small group of English evangelicals, but now is a Lutheran. He shows himself to be an astute sociologist who can put every object and event into the position of humor.

I’m fascinated how he came to know his neighbors so well. The very sensitive person may take offense at his observations. But most people are likely to enjoy the laughs, especially those stories about their own ethnic group. One gets the feeling that Kiellor has strong admiration for both his German and Norwegian neighbors. A new ethnic group, the Danes, came into the script a some years ago after his marriage in Copenhagen.

The two visible organizations in town are the Knights of Columbus with their impressive uniforms and showy parades, and the Sons of Knute who trudge along with gusto, when the occasion requires.

Among the noted Norwegians in town is the Ingquist family. They own the bank and occupy the pulpit of the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The Norwegian car dealership owned by the Bunsens sells Fords. It’s a matter of “faith” to buy the right car as the Catholics drive Chevrolets sold by the German Kreugers. He notes that the Plymouth brethren also drive Fords (why not Plymouths?), but they have a Bible verse on a small steel plate bolted on the top of the licenses. The Norwegian banker, however, drives a Lincoln.

Keillor is pretty good in picking up on lutefisk and all such things as distinguish Norwegians from other people. He makes the same mistake as most Norwegians, however, in designating May 17, 1814 (“syttende mai”) as “Independence Day” when it’s really “Constitution Day.”  It took another ninety-one years (1905) until Norway was fully independent and elected a king of its own choice. You can’t blame Keillor for that. He only tells it like he hears it.

Some of the other Norwegians memorialized in Lake Wobegon stories are Senator Thorvaldson, and Anderson, Berge, Fjelde, Johnson, Oleson, Quist, Tollefson and Tollerud families. The Norwegians were able to change the name of the town in 1880 from New Albion to Lake Wobegone when they gained a 4-3 majority on the City Council. After quite a squabble, it finally got changed to “Wobegon.”  The Lake Wobegon Norwegians came from Stavanger, Telemark and Hallingdal.

Keillor has his information pretty straight on how Norwegians think Christmas should be celebrated. Somethings can only be learned from being there. He knows that every Norwegian must sing “Jeg er saa glad hver Julekveld” (“I am so glad each Christmas Eve”) at least twelve times during the holidays or it just won’t be Christmas. It always brings tears to the Sons of Knute.

“Julekake” (Christmas bread) is also essential for a real Christmas. Lutefisk, however, is a more serious matter. It’s not for everybody. Not even all Norwegians have sturdy enough stomachs and nostrils to indulge. That’s probably why the Vikings were so tough, since the ordeal for becoming a true Viking was said to eat six consecutive meals of lutefisk. The Viking chiefs didn’t want to take any sissies along on their raids of England Ireland and France.

There is more than a little truth when Keillor describes the true Norwegians as being suspicious of pleasure. It always seems to produce a bad conscience. He footnotes them as saying, “If you broke your leg, walk home and apply ice. Don’t complain. Don’t baby yourself.”  It’s really not that tough today, but I’ve known some for whom it applied. He has also learned commonly used Norwegian words and expressions well.

Lake Wobegon has one unique attraction, the “Statue of the Unknown Norwegian.”  An Irishman made it in 1896. If he had spoken Norwegian he might have found out the man’s name!  After being damaged by a storm in 1947, it was moved into the local museum alongside the Lake Wobegon runestone that “proves that Viking explorers were here in 1381.”

On Columbus Day, the runestone is carried to the school so the children can learn who really discovered America. It’s gospel for them that this land should be called “The United States of Erika,” instead of “America.”  After all, it was Erik the Red’s son, Leif, who actually set foot on this continent five hundred years before that Italian mapmaker (Amerigo Vespucci) ever heard of the place. If you happen to visit Lake Wobegon, be sure to sign the visitor’s book supplied by the Sons of Knute.

Garrison Keillor’s contribution to Americana may have started something that is just as true as motherhood and as good as apple pie. We missed him when he moved to Copenhagen for a little while so he and his Danish wife could enjoy a “wonderful Copenhagen.”  He is back with us now and we can hear his broadcasts every week again. Time may have forgotten that little town in Minnesota, but we haven’t. There are lots of us shy people waiting to hear the latest news about the Tolleruds, the Sons of Knute and their neighbors.

Next month: Johan Falkenberg — Novelist from the Copper Mines

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.