Review

Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance

by Garrison Keillor

During one of those author-who-you-should-know interviews on
public television a few years ago, I was about to change channels
when I heard a rather arresting statement that went something like
“writer X gently relaxes the reader into stark
reality…” I’ve forgotten who they were talking
about, but few things I’ve heard on any author before or
since are better suited to Garrison Keillor and PILGRIMS --- the
latest in his series of books rooted deep in the soil (or, should I
say, soul?) of Lake Wobegon and the radio hinterlands of his
Prairie Home Companion.

PILGRIMS has much in common with everything else that flows from
Keillor’s seemingly inexhaustible and irresistible Midwestern
imagination. But this time, in a spirit of reckless literary
abandon, he transplants 12 unlikely Wobegonians --- including his
semi-fictional self --- into the original hotbed of classical
culture: Rome. Though Italy may seem about as far from their
Minnesota Nordic roots as Betelgeuse, they travel amazingly well.
Among the loose-knit cluster of pragmatic Lutherans and anxious
Catholics is a carpenter, a couple of farmers, the usual busybodies
and gossips, a car salesman, a priest, Wobegon’s mayor, two
teachers, and a famous radio talk show host called Gary.

If this is all beginning to sound a little Chaucerian,
you’re getting warm. Like his precursor (admittedly a far
better poet), Keillor’s mainly prose novel gently mocks the
pretensions of a religious pilgrimage by relating the more
practical concerns, aspirations, misadventures and joys that bubble
up along the way for some remarkable “ordinary” people.
Typical among them is trip organizer and unlikely heroine Margie
Krebsbach, a high school librarian who had never displayed any
qualities as a leader in her life.

Every pilgrimage has an ostensible goal to distinguish it from
mere tourism. After all, it would be hard to sell the concept of
anyone in Lake Wobegon going off to Europe with nothing else in
mind except to have fun and enjoy the scenery (both architectural
and human). No way! The Catholics need approval and the Lutherans
need justification, so like the good psychological theologian he
is, Keillor gives them all a collective Purpose: to mount a picture
of local war hero Augustus “Gussie” Norlander on his
gravestone in a Roman military cemetery.

Understanding that piece of the “plot” is essential
because the real journey of PILGRIMS starts not en route as it does
with Chaucer’s intrepid lot, but from the moment
Keillor’s Wobegonians land in a jet-lagged daze at Da Vinci
Airport and plan the logistics of completing their mission. In many
ways, the geographical and cultural realities of dislocation kick
in right there on the tarmac with the first irritable group photo,
the first arguments over whether to sleep or sight-see, and the
first wrangle over whether to eat “native” or
familiar.

Having set that machine in motion with all the predictable and
humorous missteps that he invents with such maddening ease, Keillor
goes beneath the surface of his seemingly placid and diffident
characters to explore the ingredients of their hearts. And
here’s where PILGRIMS gets really interesting. Keillor
blindsides the reader (gently but insistently) with the stark
realities of unfulfilled dreams, lost opportunities, dashed hopes,
faded love, anxious futures, shattered ideals, uncertain faith, and
the whole gamut of worries that travel with all of us wherever we
go.

Margie becomes the focus of a tentative but determined journey
back to her own future, a spiritual and psychological pilgrimage in
which she learns to reclaim what she truly loves about herself and
her life and shed the parts that weighed her down. Much of that
redemptive action happens unbeknownst to her companions, who
undergo their own private epiphanies at the same time. They all
come together around the inescapable realization that even their
Purpose evolves into something else. The late lamented
“Gussie” turns out not to be the larger-than-life hero
they were all expecting to honor. In fact, his life was not
half-bad and about the same size as all of theirs.

And somehow, that not only works for Keillor’s
homeward-bound Wobegonians, but it works for me, too. After reading
PILGRIMS, you’ll be left with a big smile in your heart and
perhaps just a wee tear in your eye. What could be more vintage
Garrison Keillor than that?

Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on January 18, 2011

Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance
by Garrison Keillor

  • Publication Date: September 28, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117858
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117858