August 12, 2016

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Remembering the wry northern sense of humor

Cynthia DewesGarrison Keillor will be sorely missed, at least in this household. He and his tales of Lake Woebegon resonate with those of us who come from up north because he’s right on target. Aside from the movie Fargo, he’s the most accurate chronicler of that weird, rather dark humor that pervades up there. Somehow, all that cold and snow and winter darkness creates hilarious situations and characters and events.

Now, I don’t think they set out to be funny. It just happened, as in the erection of my grade-through-high school building. Keep in mind that this is Minnesota we’re talking about, a place with very cold and snowy winters.

When my mom was a junior in the same high school, the school building burned down and they had to build a new one. Contrary to all sense, they chose a southwestern style of architecture. The school looked like a big white pueblo, white with wooden beams poking out here and there. Inside, the décor was southwestern Indian, with paintings of tribal gatherings and ceremonial costumes.

That’s fine, but the problem was the flat roof typical of the southwest. Unlike that hot, sunny climate, Minnesota experiences frequent snowstorms which would cover the roof several feet deep with heavy snow. So the janitors spent most of their time up there shoveling snow off the roof before it could collapse.

Garrison liked to tease Lutherans, implying that they were dour and humorless. That isn’t exactly true because they, like us, believe that God must have a sense of humor, and we are made in God’s image. After all, God gave us free will, which led to all kinds of amusing behavior.

My hometown of Wayzata also had a strangely humorous beginning. It seems that Jim Hill, the empire builder and founder of the Great Northern Railroad, had a dispute with the city fathers about where his tracks would run through the town.

Hill wanted the more or less direct route through the middle of the downtown, connecting the trains from Minneapolis on to South Dakota. But the city didn’t like that and refused permission. So Hill retaliated by building his railroad track through town right along the publicly accessible shore of beautiful Lake Minnetonka on which the town fronted.

So here was a lovely scene dominated by trains rumbling by in front of it. The main street of town became a corridor next to the railroad, with buildings along the other side. To us, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the movie theater and the grocery and hardware stores admired the scenery through interruptions from noise and speeding behemoths.

Northern humor is largely laconic. Of course, people laugh raucously now and then and make jokes, but mostly their humor is the kind where you chuckle inside and share it with others through a look or a shrug.

It’s also kind of politically incorrect. It’s not socially acceptable to make fun of death or gruesome ways of achieving it, but northerners do. Think of the scene in the movie Fargo where the murderer is disposing of his crimes in a wood chipper.

Humor of any kind is a gift and a blessing. Personally, I agree with Garrison that up north the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average. And they’re funny, too.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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