Heroes of German-Russian Country | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Heroes of German-Russian Country

Apr 20, 2019

Here are a couple of things that seem far apart, but in my mind, there is a connection.

We are recently returned from a research expedition to the high dry interior of New Zealand, where we spent time with people who have established a world-class wine industry in former sheep paddocks. Marketing is crucial to them, marketing not only their vintage but also the land in which it is made.

Some of the vintners have retained high-end marketing consultants, who have advised them as to the selection of archetypes for their marketing campaigns. An archetype is a story-symbol, something universally recurrent in human story-telling, such that it resonates with and motivates your public. The Sage, the Trickster, and most of all, the Hero are established archetypes. This is common practice in twenty-first century marketing.

I am not a marketing guy, but I am a liberal arts guy, and so I know where this comes from--the 1949 book by the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Stay with me, because this gets a little humanities-wonky, but you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Campbell’s classic work is called, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is the Bible on archetypes. It draws on deep knowledge of history, mythology, literature, and most of all, Jungian psychology. Whether the marketers or the vintners know it or not, The Hero with a Thousand Faces animates their labors.

So home we come to our American plains, where my next expedition is to the German-Russian Country of McIntosh County. In this region I work with people interested in branding and marketing their immigrant culture for purposes of grassroots heritage tourism.

I am to speak to the annual banquet of the Ashley Chamber of Commerce, and I have to talk about archetypes. German-Russian Country, you see, has a default archetype housed in its folk history. It is a survivor story, the oft-told history of people beat up by despotic governments and malevolent forces. It comes perilously close to being a victim narrative. It lacks what historians today call agency.

Problem is, the Survivor doesn’t resonate as an archetype. It evokes pity rather than empathy. Digging deeper into the history of McIntosh County, we find that embedded in the mournful stories are other archetypes--in fact the greatest of them all, that hero with a thousand faces.

Two of the most tragic tales of German-Russian Country have to do with fire--the prairie fire of 1898 that killed Minnie Geiszler and her daughter Anna, and the house fire of 1946 that took five children of the Lang family. Well, Minnie Geiszler did die in that fire, but she died a hero, trying to save her daughter, and we tell and sing her story yet today.

There is a hero in the middle of the Lang house fire story, too, who speaks powerfully to us--but I am not quite ready to talk about that yet. It is a story to be handled with sensitivity.

The upshot of all this is, I see German-Russian Country, and perhaps the entirety of the northern plains, as a place of pilgrimage populated by compelling narratives that resonate with travelers. This presents a challenge: are we good enough storytellers to handle it? Well, challenge is what heroes are made of.

~Tom Isern