Lost 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

Vossler, Ronald J. Lost Shawls and Pig Spleens: Folklore, Anecdotes, and Humor from the Oral Traditions of Germans from Russia in the Dakotas. Illustrated by Andrea Trenbeath and Joshua Vossler. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002.

This is a companion to Vossler¹s earlier book Not Until the Combine is
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 nostalgia.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller