Shawls and Pig Spleens:
Folklore, Anecdotes, and Humor from the Oral Traditions
of Germans from Russia in the Dakotas
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
This is a companion to Vossler¹s earlier book Not Until the
Paid and Other Jokes: From the Oral Traditions of Germans from Russia
in the Dakotas. As was the case with his first title, Vossler endeavors
to translate the old culture, received from German Russian immigrants,
for their descendants today.
In Not Until the Combine is Paid, Vossler collected humorous narrative
stories. For his second, he says in the book¹s introduction,
he pulled together "much folkloric material" he had omitted
from the first. He says, "One good reason for this collection
is to gather some of the shorter kinds of humor, the chants and
the ditties, the greetings and the retorts, along with brief commentary--to
illustrate the distinct, if at times enigmatic, humor which is,
or was, once a part of Germans from Russia culture and social discourse.
Another reason for this collection is to bring together in printed
form various anecdotes and folklore which have been circulating
in private for many years...." Vossler collected his material
formally and informally among the Germans from Russia both in the
Dakotas and in the Ukraine.
The book reveals humor used to cope with a life that was close to
earthy realities. Some of the humor is philosophical, "A miserable
life is always better than a beautiful death." Some grew out
of the experiences of communist Ukraine. Villager 1: "Did you
hear that Jacob S. died?" Villager 2: "No, I didn¹t
even know he¹d been arrested." There are tinges of cruelty.
A child who says he is hungry is told, "Are you hungry? Then
crawl into a cucumber." Some comes from differences between
ethnic and religious groups, as when a Lutheran Church described
attendance at a wedding as constituting "106 souls and one
German." Many grew out of plays on language or confusions caused
by learning to function in two languages. When one man was not invited
to a birthday party, another said of him, "They just didn¹t
load him in." Vossler has to explain why this is funny, as
he does quite frequently. He also often includes the way punch lines
were spoken in Black Sea German Russian dialect, then translates
them. This may be somewhat awkward, but then the reader must remember
that the humor is more about cultural preservation than entertainment.
An issue for Vossler, as it is with many who read the book, is
what to do about the many jokes that are scatological. Example:
A sign in a small cafe in German-Russian country had a sign that
said, "When the Butt Trumpets, The Heart is Healthy."
Vossler explains his reasons for including them in his introduction.
"...some of what is included here, such as the many jokes with
their focus on dung, as well as anecdotes about differences between
various Germans from Russia religious groups, may strike readers
as insensitive, or, even untoward. What I would emphasize is that
this material--however "grob" or crude--is as much a part
of this ethnic group¹s traditions as its food-ways, or the
plaintive "sorrow songs" of its non-liturgical religious
music. To ignore such distinctive material because it may offend
some will only contribute to further misunderstanding of an ethnic
group already mis-characterized, even by some of its descendants,
as having no humor, art, or literature."
As in the first title, readers looking for something that fits
meaningfully into their current cultural milieu will be mostly disappointed.
Most of the jokes/sayings/retorts come from another time and place,
the Ukraine and the German-Russian farms and small towns of a generation
or two or three ago. Yet, many are still remembered by persons living
today (this reviewer included), which attests to their authenticity.
Dwellers in small
towns with thinning populations, whose children live not on the
next farm but in distant cities, will recall them with a certain