Garrison Keillor Leaves the Limelight

A new guard of storytellers reflects Minnesota’s broadening perspective

An illustration of Garrison Keillor and a group of journalists typing and writing in notepads.

illustration by Lars Leetaru

I wasn’t the biggest Prince fan (just the hits, mainly) but I still felt weepy the whole week after he died. Every day the newspaper came, and for some reason I couldn’t get myself to read it. So the papers piled, up and there they sit, still today. In a similar way, the changing of the guard at A Prairie Home Companion threw me off kilter. While I love the new host, Chris Thile, and his manic mandolin energy, I still feel a little lost when I turn on the radio and Keillor isn’t there as he has been most of my life.

Some days, I even miss the Metrodome.

Nostalgia is a powerful force, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. For some time now, but especially in the last year or two, the nature of what it means to be a Minnesotan has changed without most of us noticing.

As a writer, I see this in the books coming out of our state. When I was younger, other than Native American novelist Louise Erdrich (LaRose), all the literary stars I knew came from the same lineages I did: Northern European immigrants who arrived here to farm and who enjoyed making one another feel guilty. When I went to St. Olaf College (where my grandfather went) I learned to write from Jim Heynen (Ordinary Sins) and studied other Minnesota writers including Paul Gruchow (Journal of a Prairie Year), Jon Hassler (Staggerford), and Bill Holm (The Music of Failure). They are all great writers, whose work I still love for the way their stories took people and places familiar to me and turned them into art.

Then, after some years spent in other parts of the country and the world, learning to navigate different cultures and languages, I moved back to the state and didn’t feel quite as connected to my roots. At the same time, I noticed that the state didn’t seem to, either. Like me, it had picked up other stories from other parts of the world, those of Minneapolis-based Nuruddin Farah (Maps), rooted in Somalia, of Kao Kalia Yang (The Song Poet), with one foot in the Laotian highlands and another in Frogtown. The question of who or what a Minnesota writer was—and of what a Minnesota story is—was broadening, becoming more complex, like the world itself. To me, these new stories were at least as compelling as anything that had happened in Gopher Prairie.

When the national (and sometimes international) literary prizes are announced, there is almost certain to be a writer (or publisher) from Minnesota among the ranks. Today it is as likely to be a writer born elsewhere who now belongs here—say, Lesley Nneka Arimah (What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky), Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings), or Julie Schumacher (Dear Committee Members)—as it is to be someone with deep local roots, such as Erdrich or Kelly Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon).

To my mind, this is welcome change. Without new blood, without new ideas, new stories, I’m afraid our state’s culture would stagnate and turn inward. In his time, Prince was our creative outlier, who wove the disparate strands of American music into something the world had never seen. Today, more varied strands of music and storytelling run through our state than ever before, and we are just beginning to see what a new generation of artists will weave from them.

When Garrison Keillor was asked by the Pioneer Press what he’ll remember about APHC, he brushed off the question. “I’m thinking entirely forward; it’s dangerous to think back.” That seems like sound advice, which means I may never read that old pile of newspapers. Instead, I hope to be too busy reading about what our state is becoming to spend much time dwelling on what it was.