Our town?

Garrison Keillor on his new novel of Lake Wobegon
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  September 12, 2007

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“Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.” Garrison Keillor’s Pontoon (Viking, 248 pages, $25.95) starts out on a somber note, but when the angel who comes for Evelyn shakes his golden locks and they make a skittery sound like dry seed pods, she doesn’t feel bad, and you shouldn’t either. Pontoon is the story of Evelyn’s funeral, which takes us not to the Prairie Home Cemetery but out onto Lake Wobegon, the lake, not the town; it’s the story of ashes in a green bowling ball to be dropped from a parasail, and Evelyn’s secret life, and how her daughter Barbara gave up drinking. But it’s also the story of Debbie Detmer’s “Celebration of Commitment” with her boyfriend, Brent, and that too is taking place on the lake, on a pontoon boat with a barbecue grill, attended by two Big Boy giant fiberglass duck decoys, and a hot-air balloon piloted by Debbie’s old boyfriend Craig to whisk the happy couple away. And also the visit, that same Saturday, of 24 Lutheran pastors from Denmark. Just another quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Here’s Garrison Keillor bringing us up to date on his home town.

Is “Sumus Quod Sumus” the official lake wobegon town motto? What’s the history behind it?
“Sumus Quod Sumus” means “We Are Who We Are,” and it was adopted as the official town motto as a compromise after a fierce battle between “Ruhe und Frieden” (“Rest and Peace”) and “Altid gå lige hjem” (“Always Go Straight Home”). The Germans and the Norwegians were at each other’s throats back then, and so Latin was brought in to keep the peace, but then there was a fight over whether it should be “Sumus Quod Sumus” or “Sumus Quid Sumus,” and people took hard-and-fast positions on this, especially those who knew no Latin. It was a sore point of contention for quite some time.

Is the Chatterbox Café — or is it planning to become — a Wi-Fi hotspot? Will Dorothy charge, like Starbucks, or will it be free? Who in town might we see there working?
There is Wi-Fi here and there in town, not in the Chatterbox, but out by the grain terminal, and in the parking lot of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, and downwind of the Sons of Knute Temple — none of which has installed Wi-Fi, so there’s speculation that it’s in the ground, some sort of ore deposit. Dorothy doesn’t intend to install Wi-Fi: she has no interest in people parking themselves in a dark booth for five hours, she has enough of that sort of thing already. Not many people in town use the Internet for work: it’s most popular among old people, who can use it to chat with far-flung grandchildren on G-mail or Yahoo.

Has any member of the Lake Wobegon Whippets gone on to the Major Leagues?
The slugging second baseman Wally (Old Hard Hands) Bunsen had a cup of coffee with the Boston Braves back in 1947 and did well there (.323, 7 HR, 21 SB, 65 RBI) but got homesick for his mother’s cooking and came back. There simply wasn’t anything in Boston he cared to eat, everything tasted fishy to him. He lost weight and sat around moping in his rooming house and finally got on a bus and came home.

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