After the tremendous success of Garrison Keillor's first novel, Lake Wobegon Days, critics and readers were curious to see how Leaving Home would be received. This second book, that contained more hilarious and heartwarming stories from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, was on the bestseller's list in 1987 and is still in print today. When Leaving Home stayed on the bestseller's list for over twenty weeks it was obvious that the public loved Keillor's storytelling whether over the air on in print. Both of these fictional works about Lake Wobegon derive from his radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" which aired for over a decade. Keillor's success and recognition continued to increase after the release of Leaving Home as he wrote numerous other books and produced many audio recordings of his stories. The town of Lake Wobegon became for many people a home away from home. Keillor was able to create a fictional place with a simple way of life that seems desirable us and he has invented characters that somehow seem like people that we all know or to whom we can relate. Readers love him for his combination of wit and sentimentality, either laughing out loud or crying at each little vignette that he creates. His works recall other bestselling authors who depict certain regional locations and make the reader feel as though they have suddenly stepped into another area. His appeal to nostalgia and sentimentality is an approach that numerous authors use and may explain why the public loves him so much. Unlike many other bestselling authors whose books later became movies, Keillor's career began on the radio and then moved to books. Perhaps a combination of these and other elements explain Keillor's success and also tell us more about other bestselling novels.
Keillor has a unique ability to draw readers into his tales and make them feel as though they are a part of the community he describes. His vivid descriptions of the rural prairie town of Lake Wobegon become familiar to readers and make them feel as though they, too, are experiencing the landscape. He describes the community's dependence on the weather for their farming, writing, "The rain was more than farmers needed and came at the wrong time, keeping them out of the fields, and now planting is late. Farmers are in enough trouble as it is, and even if they could run the weather as they please, they still might not make it." After a long night and much embarrassment Roger, a farmer, settles in bed next to his wife and prays, "Thank you God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough. Thank you for the rain. And for the chance to wake up in three hours and go fishing: I thank you for that now, because I won't feel so thankful then." With portraits such as this Keillor provides a kind of regional humor that is reminiscent of many other authors. Critics often compare Keillor to well-known authors such as Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and James Thurber (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1999). Mark Twain, arguably America's greatest humorist, wrote of Huck Finn's adventures in the South during the period of slavery. Using local dialect Twain captured the essence of the region at that time, in the same way that Keillor does with Lake Wobegon. While the town is fictional, the descriptions of it are remarkably similar to the Minnesota town in which Keillor grew up. It is interesting to note that he recently made an audio recording of Huckleberry Finn, perhaps because he appreciated the regional humor in Twain's writings that he also used in his own.
Critics often associate Keillor with other authors who either created mythical places as he did or who portrayed stories of their own hometowns. Stephen Wilbers wrote an article in American Studies, claiming, "In spinning his fanciful and gently satiric tales of life in Lake Wobegon? Keillor invites comparison with an earlier Midwesterner, James Thurber, and with the late E.B. White, whose stories evoke life in rural Maine so convincingly" (Wilbers, 1989). Bret Harte, a nineteenth century author, wrote about the California gold rush and laid the foundations for the Western. Roy Blount wrote several books of Southern humor, poking fun at and also fondly recalling the South and its idiosyncrasies. Blount made regular guest appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion" and his writings sparked Keillor to remark that his book Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor "along with the Bible and Shakespeare's plays and a good dictionary, should just about do it for you" (amazon.com). Rebecca Wells, author of Little Alters Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, also depicts life in the deep South where Southern belles mix with "rednecks" and Cajuns alike. Her combination of wit and tragedy is similar to Keillor's. He is often compared to Will Rogers as well, who shares the same rural frontier background. "Keillor, like Will Rogers," a New York Times book review claimed, "creates an immediate emotional relationship with his readers," (Lurie, 1988). The success of these authors reveals that audiences enjoy experiencing regional culture and humor by an author who is able to creatively and accurately depict everyday life in these settings.
The nostalgic appeal that Keillor uses in Leaving Home may be the most alluring aspect to the public and may explain why his novels are so beloved. The dust jacket of Leaving Home describes Lake Wobegon as a place "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." In creating his own version of an idealized landscape, Keillor creates in his readers a longing for a simpler life that has not been touched by modern advances. "The residents of Lake Wobegon resist change and technology and live a simpler life," one critic writes describing the town's contrast to life as most American's experience it today (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1999). In his stories Keillor lures people into the comic town of Lake Wobegon that is, as the dust jacket reads, "the town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve." Yet it is interesting that Lake Wobegon is appealing to so many people since Keillor does not exactly portray it as an ideal place to live. In contrast, Keillor gives the reader many reasons to avoid Lake Wobegon, such as its drab landscape and its typical small town problems. "The perils of that little town on the prairie have to be set out," Keillor said in an interview, "boredom, loneliness, alcohol, self-hatred and madness" (Lurie, 1988). John E. Miller, in an essay comparing Sinclair Lewis and Keillor, writes, "Life in Lake Wobegon is not perfect, but it is whole. It is within this community that a collectivity of individuals find meaning and freedom, not in escape nor in quixotic efforts to remake society, but in the day to day transactions, resolutions, and interactions that make and individual a social being" (Miller, 1987). In a book review for the Detroit News Tracy Pipp claimed, "Keillor's strength? is in the reminiscences of days past" (Pipp, 1997). It is ultimately Keillor's ability to craft this wholeness and wistfulness for simpler times that creates a sense of nostalgia for the quintessential small town of Lake Wobegon.
Critics note a continuity between Keillor and his predecessors in their appeal to nostalgia and sentimentality. Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, is perhaps the best example of one who is known for depicting a nostalgic view of a small town. His portrayal of the history of a placid New Hampshire town appealed to many readers who longed to belong to such a place. Books such as Our Town and Leaving Home captivate the imagination of American audiences, Wilbers wrote, because they address a need "for a sense of community and belonging, for reassurance against social disruption and the threat of loss- that need, in short, for a sense of place" (Wilbers, 1989). Keillor addresses this need and makes readers feel a sense of belonging "by calling on our shared experience" (Wilbers, 1989). We realize that the characters of Lake Wobegon are not really all strong, beautiful or above average but, instead, they are typical people who experience common events and often make the same mistakes and feel the same emotions that we do. In this sense we feel do feel a sense of belonging when reading or listening to Keillor's tales.
Sinclair Lewis' is yet another novel that resembles Leaving Home's nostalgic appeal. Many believe that Lewis' novel "redefined the way in which Americans thought about their small towns" (Miller, 1987). Miller notices similarities between Lewis and Keillor in their abilities to give detailed observation and description of life in their small towns (1987). Booth Tarkington's Seventeen is yet another example of a book in this genre that appeals to emotions and longing for times past. Referring to Leaving Home, Spalding Gray wrote, "For some of you, (Keillor's stories) will make you remember the home that you never had" (1987). American and international audiences alike seemed to have a great liking for Keillor's "folksy, down-home nature of his themes, which tend to celebrate and uphold the values of small-town America" (CLC, 1999). He is not without his critics, however, and he is sometimes reprimanded for representing an overly sentimental and nostalgic view of small-town life (CLC, 1999). One harsh critic described Leaving Home as "a sweet picture of small-town life, misty around the edges, that panders to the nostalgic and escapist yearnings of a society alienated from the present and aware that it is on the skids" (Wilbers, 1989). Despite remarks like this one, Leaving Home was raved about by many and is still widely read today. Keillor's nostalgic appeal followed in the trail of many other bestsellers and seems to still satisfy a certain need or desire of readers. "Life is complicated and not for the timid," Keillor writes, "It's an experience that when it's done, it will take us a while to get over it. We'll look back on all the good things we surrendered in favor of deadly trash and wish we had returned and reclaimed them. We may sit in a cool corner of hell and wish we had kept the ballpark, built the shops elsewhere, and not killed off all those cornfields," depicting the very nostalgic emotions that draw readers to Lake Wobegon and its quirky characters.
The success of Leaving Home may also be a result of the fact that Keillor was already well known and liked. This collection of stories followeed quickly after the release of bestselling Lake Wobegon Days, which may have boosted its sales. On the outside cover Garrison Keillor's name is in large, bold letters in the very center. A large picture of Keillor covers the entire back of the dust jacket. People knew his name already from "A Prairie Home Companion" and Lake Wobegon Days, a fact that may explain the immediate popularity of Leaving Home. Similarly, many authors appear repeatedly on the bestseller's list because they are already established household names. Authors such as Danielle Steel and John Grisham are such authors whose success is nearly guaranteed because of their name recognition. That Keillor wrote a book entitled Leaving Home at the time that he left his Minnesota home and headed for Denmark most likely boosted his sales, as well. Critics often cited this piece of information as interesting and viewed the collection of stories involving Lake Wobegon characters leaving their own homes as glimpses into Keillor's personal life. Both his name recognition and the events occurring in his life also help to explain the great success of Leaving Home.
Despite all of the similarities between Keillor and other authors there is also one large difference. While many authors write books that later become motion pictures, Keillor took his radio broadcasts and compiled them into a book. John Grisham and Tom Clancy are notorious for having films made of nearly every book they write, and are sometimes criticized for writing movie scripts rather than pieces of literature. Keillor, by contrast, is the exception because the popularity of his radio show contributed to the success of his written works. "A Prairie Home Companion" had nearly three to four million listeners weekly and it is safe to assume that these loyal listeners also bought his books. This interesting fact sets Keillor apart from other bestselling authors in a unique way.
Leaving Home could have most likely sold because of its endearing stories and fascinating characters, but many factors probably contributed to its great success. Keillor's use of regional humor and appeal to nostalgia are common among bestselling books and help to explain why audiences love his stories so much. These factors, along with his already established recognition and the fact that he was "leaving home" contributed to its appeal. Yet it was also unique in that the stories in Leaving Home were first told over public radio. "Leaving Home will most likely make Garrison Keillor's fans love him all the more," Gray wrote, and it seems to have done just that.
Gray, Spalding. "Keillor, Garrison." New York Times. p9. October, 4, 1987.
"Keillor, Garrison." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 115, p260-283. The Gale Group. Detroit, 1999.
Lurie, Alison. "The Frog Prince." The New York Review of Books. p33-4. November 24, 1988.
Miller, John E. "The Distance Between Gopher Prairie and Lake Wobegon: Sinclair Lewis and Garrison Keillor on the Small Town Experience." Centenniel Review, Vol. 31, p432-46. Fall 1987.
Pipp, Tracy L. "Garrison Keillor makes a small story a grand tale." The Detroit News. November 24, 1997.
Wilbers, Stephen. "Lake Wobegon : Mythical Place and the American Imagination." American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, p5-20. Spring, 1989.