John Tollefson, a son of Lake Wobegon, has moved East to manage a radio station at a college for academically challenged children of financially gifted parents in upstate New York. Having achieved this pleasant perch, John has a brilliant idea for a restaurant specializing in fresh sweet corn. And he falls in love with an historian named Alida Freeman, hard at work on a book about a nineteenth-century Norwegian naturopath, an acquaintance of Lincoln, Thoreau, Whitman, and Susan B. Anthony.
Can it really be 10 years since Lake Wobegon Days showed that Keillor's hilarious and sometimes poignant stories about his imagined Minnesota town could please a multitude of readers as much as they delighted a huge radio audience? This time Keillor has had the happy inspiration of sending a bred-in-the-bone Wobegoner, John Tollefson, out into the wider world to see how his stern Lutheran values hold up in the rather less rigid context of 1990s America. Not so badly, as it turns out. Tollefson becomes director of a campus radio station at a college in upstate New York, where the library runs a very distant second in popularity to reruns of Gilligan's Island, and also a hapless investor in a restaurant based on the notion of vegetables grown in its own garden, which is the eventual victim of a hippie contractor with dreams of grandeur. He also finds a winsome girlfriend in Alida Freeman, a Columbia historian, and goes through Wobegonian agonies before he can commit himself to marriage. As always with Keillor, a plot is the longest possible distance between two points, since he can't resist an anecdote, diversionary episode or fond recollection along the way, and these are so many and so rich that forward motion is sometimes barely visible. But who could complain about such set pieces as the death, funeral and wake of John's father, the account of the family fortune that escaped to Buenos Aires, the theological chapter on the Dark and Happy Lutherans (even the Wobegon atheists are Lutheran, for that, of course, is the faith of the God they don't believe in). Among all the fun and games is a very real sense of abiding American character and mores, a passionate devotion to qualities of courage and compassion that makes Keillor's books salutary as well as delightfully daffy. BOMC dual main selection; 20-city author tour; Penguin HighBridge audio read by the author.