Lost Shawls and Pig Spleens: Folklore, Anecdotes, and Humor of the Germans from Russia

By Ronald J. Vossler, free-lance writer

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002, illustrated by Andrea Trenbeath and Joshua Vossler, 131 pages, softcover


Ronald J. Vossler
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection is pleased to announce publication of Lost Shawls and Pig Spleens: Folklore, Anecdotes, and Humor of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas by Ronald J. Vossler, free-lance writer, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

This book, Vossler's fifth, is as he states in his "Author's Introduction" a companion book to his earlier collection, Not Until the Combine is Paid and Other Jokes from the Oral Traditions of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas, though, as the sub-title indicates, it contains not only humor, but also folklore and other various anecdotes about North Dakota's most numerous ethnic group.

There are eighty nine separate entries, of varying lengths, and what adds greatly to the material are the eighteen line drawings done in ink, which showcase the ample talent of the illustrators, Andrea Trenbeath, a free-lance artist from Grand Forks, ND, and Joshua Vossler, the author's son. The drawings cover a range of feeling, from humorous; to whimsical (note the cover illustration of an elderly lady trying to "milk a bull;" to haunting (see "The Prairie Maneater").

A good part of this modest volume consists of examples of the everyday humor of Germans from Russia-- including "ritual" greetings, quips, proverbs, and retorts - once typical fare for this distinct ethnic group, often stereotyped as stoic and humorless, which settled in the Dakotas between 1884-1914. This collection also includes some narrative jokes, complete with translated English punch-lines, similar to those from the earlier volume, and there are also anecdotes which reveal, as members of this ethnic group slowly assimilated to American life, how elderly Germans from Russia misunderstood the intent, the speech, or the holidays of the younger generation, often with comical results. Included in the panoply of characters of this volume are garrulous old farmers, naive town kids, and deprived farm boys who play music in order to steal the most luscious watermelons in the township.

Not all the material is humorous; the collection is, as the author notes in his introduction, "eclectic," with much of it deriving from first hand sources, including the author's personal notebooks.

Andrea Trenbeath and Joshua Vossler
There is weather lore, faith healing rhymes, remedies for ringworm, and brief narratives, such as "The Lost Shawl." Part of the book's title grows from this particular anecdote, which describes how the owner of a lost shawl manages to retrieve a beloved shawl which has been swallowed by a voracious cow.

The setting for this material varies widely. There are numerous anecdotes and other material that obviously derive from ethnic traditions brought to Dakota small towns and farms. There is also peripheral material from German or Ukrainian villages of the Soviet era, including folkloric beliefs gleaned from old letters written to the Dakotas by German villagers, as well as stories and jokes from Ukrainian traditions, which give some insights into the lives of the German villagers who did not immigrate to America like their kinfolk. The most striking story in that regard, which likely is a real story but reads more like a legend, concerns a Soviet collective leader who after insisting on driving a harvest machine over a bridge built from razed German tombstones, suffers the consequences of that sacrilege, and is killed.

All in all, this collection- which gathers remnants of the fast disappearing oral traditions of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas -- is not only fun and informative, but in addition is a visual delight. There is much in this book that will appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about the folk beliefs, superstitions, and everyday humor of the Germans from Russia ethnic group.

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Review of the book by Edna Boardman

Lost Shawls

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