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Rose's St. Olaf: The Midwest Exotic

by Ethan Tussey

by Emily Kofoed for IN MEDIA RES

Aside from Dorothy, Sophia, Blanche, and Rose, there was one character whose name was mentioned in almost every episode of the Golden Girls' seven-year run. This character was not a person; it was Rose Nylund’s hometown of St. Olaf – most often introduced into conversations with the phrase “Back in St. Olaf…” The small, Norwegian, farm town in Northwest Minnesota was known for its strange inhabitants, its absurd customs, and its unique sayings. Yet, over the course of the Golden Girls' run, it is revealed to also have shaped Rose in some profound ways. It made her a bit goofy, but it also fed her tenacity and nurtured her deep empathy for others.

The town typically was the target or source of jokes, but every so often, the St. Olaf commentary would reveal some deeper truth about Rose. Take Rose’s origin story itself, revealed in the Season 6 episode "Once, in St. Olaf." Although it had been noted previously that Rose had been adopted by the Lindstrom family, this episode brought Rose together with her biological father, a monk named Brother Martin. Rose struggled to decide whether she could forgive her biological father for not raising her after her mother’s death. Of course she did ultimately decide to forgive him, because the bonds of St. Olaf are strong - perhaps even stronger than the parent-child bond for Rose. This episode was not all gloom and drama, of course. Sophia got stuck in an elevator, and we learned more about Rose’s adoption. (She was left on the orphanage doorstep gift-basket style with some "hickory smoked cheese and spicy beef sticks.")

It would be easy for residents of the upper Midwestern United States to roll their eyes at the way “Back in St. Olaf” jokes make flat, northern farm towns seem ignorant, naïve, or downright stupid.  But as often as St. Olaf is the target of jokes, it also continues to surprise Rose’s roommates. St. Olaf remains somewhat of an enigma as it is only seen in two episodes. It becomes a sort of quotidian exotic. A place filled with blue-collar, Scandinavian immigrants that was in many ways the complete opposite of the Golden Girls' Miami home. Yet, however different it might seem, St. Olaf is a place where people are happy to thank you for being a friend.

Golden Girls and Geography

A clip from Golden Girls

from Golden Girls (1985)
Creator: Susan Harris
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey