The Frog Prince

Lake Wobegon Days

by Garrison Keillor
Penguin, 337 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Leaving Home

by Garrison Keillor
Penguin, 224 pp., $4.95 (forthcoming) (paper)

Happy to Be Here

by Garrison Keillor
Penguin, 275 pp., $3.95 (paper)

A Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book

by Marcia Pankake, by Jon Pankake, with a foreword by Garrison Keillor
Viking, 316 pp., $22.95

Over the last few years Lake Wobegon, Minnesota (population 942), has become the best-known town of its size in America. Millions of people are sentimentally familiar with its rival Lutheran and Catholic churches; its Chatterbox Cafe, where the specials are always meatloaf and tunafish hotdish; Bertha’s Kitty Boutique (“for persons who care about cats”), and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (“If you can’t get it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it”).

Lake Wobegon, of course, does not exist; it is the invention of Garrison Keillor, former radio variety-show host and occasional short-story writer. It is known to the world through his show, “Prairie Home Companion,” and the books that grew out of it, Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home. Keillor describes his imaginary home town with Balzacian energy and detail. Everyone and everything there interests and excites him, from Father Emil’s hay fever to Irene Bunsen’s attempts to grow the biggest tomato on record (twenty-five ounces). He knows so much about the town and is so eager to share it that Lake Wobegon Days keeps breaking out into long informative footnotes.

A memorable council meeting was that of 5/16/62 to discuss a motion to hold a special election to vote on a bond issue to repair sidewalks and install new streetlights. It was the late Leo Mueller who suggested that with a little more inner light (“Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet”), fewer people would need assistance walking home. He hinted that it was Lutherans who were walking into trees.

At first glance Lake Wobegon is an American pastoral in the comic tradition of Twain and Booth Tarkington, with an occasional slide into the romantic idealism of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It is a dream of a vanishing America where life makes sense and neighbors know and care about each other, even if they aren’t always speaking. They endure the freezing prairie winters and broiling summers with philosophical stoicism, and express themselves in highly characteristic speech and gesture:

Mr. Berge said to Wally in the Sidetrack [the local bar], “Shees, it’s bin cool out, don’t you think. I thought dey said it was supposta warm up a little, fer crine out loud.” Wally said, “It’s almost October, Berge. It’s going to be getting a lot cooler from here on out right through the end of the year and into the next. It’s not going to warm up any time soon.”

It’s easy for Wally to be a realist. He spends his days in the Sidetrack like a bear in a cave—a cave with green and orange and blue neon beer signs and a bevy of older bears leaning against the bar and belching beer breath.

One of Garrison Keillor’s greatest gifts is his ability to modulate like this from realism to fantasy, or from low farce to high comedy. The range of Keillor’s sympathy is wider than …

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