Every Saturday and Sunday, Garrison Keillor always makes my day with his radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” The highlight of the show for many is his monologue “The News from Lake Wobegon,” the “little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.” The view of the typical Midwestern town, with its local hangouts and churches that make up the activities of the townsfolk, is always a humorous self-reflection. I think that it is true that Twain has dominion over the South, Steinbeck has his in California, and Walt Whitman in the east. Keillor, however, has his place in the Midwest.
This comes out more than ever in Keillor’s book “Life among the Lutherans.” Despite the title, this book is not about religion (either as a screed or preaching) but rather the ways of the Lutherans and their world in the fictional little town of Lake Wobegon, whether it be the trials of Pastor Inqvist, the amusement of the dysfunctional marriage of Clint and Irene Bunsen, or even the funny songs about just being Lutheran. When comparing Lutherans with Episcopalians, one song goes “Henry VIII would marry a woman, And then her head would drop. J. S. Bach had  kids, ‘Cause his organ had no stop!”
Coming from the Minnesotan view of Midwestern life, Keillor recants some of his best Wobegon monologues about the Lutheran men of the town, as well as other Christian men. The Catholics, represented as members of the perfectly-named “Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility,” may be of a different denomination, but in the upper-Midwest even Catholics are Lutherans. Keillor’s experience of Lutheranism is like that of many in the denomination: you have the “happy” Lutherans, with their puffy sweaters and welcoming attitude to others, and then you have the “dark” Lutherans, with the outlook of bleakness, buried emotions, and almost painful meekness.
Keillor writes, “Lutherans are a calm, stoical, modest people, haunted by guilt, fearful of looking ridiculous, so they feel more secure if they are surrounded by people who are dressed like them and who are doing the same thing they are, and this leads many Lutherans to consider a career in the orchestra” (cue the St. Olaf’s Choir reference). This pretty much sums up the common Midwestern ideal where you keep your head down while walking, you don’t delve into pride, and you consider the freezing winters as a reminder you’re alive and that it isn’t all about you. Even for those who aren’t Lutheran, these traits are quite common to the Midwest. Keillor notes that he doesn’t like to generalize about Lutherans, but one thing that they all have in common is that the low point of their year is their summer vacation.
The best part of the book is that as it is a collection of short stories, there is no need to read cover-to-cover and the stories range from the hilarious to the truly sad. One funny story is of twenty-four Danish Lutheran pastors visiting the town. To show them a fun time, if you can call it fun, the church (Pastor Inqvist in his Bermuda shorts and they still in their parish robes) sends them off on a pontoon in the middle of the lake to enjoy the scenery and some food. As Keillor put it, “[The] one problem with twenty-four men on a twenty-six-foot boat is that in the Midwest we need to stand about twenty-eight inches or more from each other; otherwise, we get headaches.” Suffice it to say they got more than just headaches there.
Perhaps one of the most revealing stories is Keillor’s use of his “Ninety-five Theses,” written by an unknown ex-Wobegonian about his contempt for Lutheranism, the Midwest, and his family. Perhaps one of the most striking verses is number 13, towards his mother: “In place of true contrition, you taught me to be apologetic. I apologize continually. I apologize for my existence, a fact that I cannot change. For years you told me I’d be sorry someday. I am.”
Whether one is looking for a good chuckle at Midwestern life or perhaps delving into deep reservations about the status of Middle America, Keillor’s books offers a good, fictional insight to the lives and habits of the Midwestern Lutheran.