Sanpete Tales: Humorous Folklore From Central Utah
William Jenson Adams, Edgar M. Jenson
Morgan B. Adair
Signature Books , 1999. Softcover:
Suggested retail price: $15.95 (US)
Between 1853 and 1887, thousands of Scandinavians joined the LDS Church and emigrated to Utah. Many of these families settled in the central Utah farming communities of Sanpete County -- Manti, Ephraim, Moroni, etc. These Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians brought their stories and storytelling traditions with them. Immigrant Edgar M. Jenson collected many of these stories, and his grandson William Jenson Adams selected and edited this collection, published by Signature Books.
I grew up in Minnesota, where many of my friends were second and third generation descendants of Scandinavian immigrants. I knew Andersons, Olsens, Swensons, Torvaldsens, Knudsons, and a plethora of other -sens and -sons. The dialect these stories are written in was familiar to me, but may make the reading a little difficult for those who aren't accustomed to the sound of a Scandinavian accent. A sample should illustrate:
"My grandpa remembers one day when our teacher spent about an hour explaining prepositions to our class. Jacob Stein raised his hand and said, 'Professor Yenson, now you has talked us black in de face, but still you hasn't made it clear yoost vhy 'is' is a verb oond 'in' is a preposition ven, by golly, de is both persactly de same big."
Another colorful feature of these stories are the nicknames. When a town had three men named Ole Olsen, nicknames were necessary for unambiguous communication. A ubiquitous story tells of a bishop who called on "Brother Peterson" to give the closing prayer in sacrament meeting. When half of the men in the ward stood up, the bishop said, "Oh, I mean Brother Peter Peterson." Two men sat down. So Ed Jensen became Ed Miller, because his father ran a mill. Enar Petersen had a wooden leg, so he became Peggy Peterson.
The people in these stories were dealing with a new language, country, culture, and religion, so many of the stories are variations on the "fish out of water" theme. But many of the stories deal with the more universal theme of human foibles. People in these stories tell lies, get drunk, cheat each other in business deals, act vain, cheap, and foolish. But the stories are told with such warmth and humor that all we see is loveable, though imperfect, human beings.In addition to the entertainment these stories provide, they also served to unite a community. When someone tells a story about the stupid mistake Sven made last week, he is saying that he trusts that Sven will not take offense. The body of shared stories and the trust they represent helps form a community.
Some of the stories give hints to beliefs, attitudes and practices of the times. Some of the stories deal with polygamy; others tell of the role bishops played in settling personal or business disputes. The stories reveal a belief in a personal, active God who was a member of the community, with a stake in its survival.
& & & & For instance, Bishop Dorius bluntly prayed after a particularly destructive storm:
& & & & 'Dear Lord, ve know you haf a lot to do, oond vith all de people askin' for stuff, it is easy to get confused. But Lord, nobody has asked for dat hail. P'raps you could be more careful in de future.' In the same spirit, another time one of the farmers prayed: 'Ve tank you for the big storm last night -- or dat is, ve vould tank you effen it hadn't done more damage dan gud.'
Since this is folklore, there should be no expectation of strict historical accuracy. In fact, one of the stories appears to have migrated from the corpus of J. Golden Kimball folklore (or vice versa). Here's the J. Golden Kimball version of the story:
& & & & Sitting on a public works committee for the city, Golden fought against what he considered to be frivolous 'improvements'; in one case, speaking against building a bridge across the Jordan River (west of Salt Lake) where an easy ford existed, he said, 'We don't need a bridge over the Jordan; why, I can piss half-way across the Jordan.' The chairman of the committee gavelled him into silence and said 'Brother Golden, I believe you're out of order!' 'I know I'm out of order,' was his immediate comeback; 'if I wasn't out of order, I could piss all the way across the Jordan River!'(Thomas E. Cheney, The Golden Legacy: A Folk History of J. Golden Kimball (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1974), pp. 120-121.)
In the spirit of the Sanpete Tales, I'll add a story I collected from a Tom Anderson, a neighbor and fellow ward member from Minnesota.
In the early days of the church in Minnesota, the branch met in a small, rented building. One day, the branch presidency met with the elders to discuss the branch budget. President Ole Olsen spoke first. "Brodders, I tink vat ve need in da chapel is a chandelier. Ven I vas in Salt Lake City, I saw a chapel vit a beautiful chandelier." Torgel Torgelsen raised his hand and said, "Ja, dose chandeliers is nice, but don't no one in da branch know how to play one of dose tinks, and what ve need in here is more light."
© 1999 Morgan B. Adair < MAdair@novell.com >