Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change, and the Good of the Community

By Lisa Gabbert. 2011. Logan: Utah State University Press. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-829-9 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

[Review length: 1024 words • Review posted on March 26, 2012]


Folklorists have typically studied festivals as seasonal events or rites of passage. The early scholarship centered on festivals that were perceived to be rooted in older traditional forms of social life that enacted deeply ingrained ideas about identity and heritage. Small town events, grounded more in interests for economic development and tourism, were often excluded from folklorists' purview until scholars like John Gutowski, Leslie Prosterman, Beverly Stoeltje, and Richard Bauman argued that these more commercially oriented events are contemporary manifestations of older forms of festivity. Their work lays the foundation for Lisa Gabbert's masterful study of one such event, McCall Idaho's Winter Carnival. This first entry in a new series on Ritual, Festival, and Celebration, in turn, sets a high standard for subsequent scholarship.

McCall is a small town of approximately 2,554 residents in southwestern Idaho. Gabbert knows the community well, having worked in the area as a wilderness firefighter as well as subsequently spending time in town with family members who live in McCall. Her self-described "halfie" status as a resident serves her research interests well, as her fieldwork methodology is a model of engaged participant-observation. Her involvement in the community is evident in each chapter as she shares inside information about participation and conflict in the creation of Winter Carnival and as she then moves into descriptions of crafting snow sculptures, participating in carnival parades, and observing games of skill and chance over the years at the festival.

Gabbert began her study with an interest in local history. She worked with the town's historians, but she soon was to discover that the most vibrant history wasn't to be found in the memories of McCall's residents. Rather, the visions of the town's past and present were often enacted in a ten-day annual festival with its own history stretching back to 1924. By researching Winter Carnival, Gabbert was able to explore a variety of research interests that connect her interest in local history to wider ideas about the community's identity. Grounded in a comprehensive and current understanding of the wide range of scholarship on festival, ritual, and celebration, Gabbert takes her readers on an in-depth tour of the planning, creation, and varied meanings of the event. She offers critical views of facile ideas about "the good of the community," but the book is a nuanced analysis of ways in which ideas about community life are created, negotiated, expressed, and consumed within this local celebration.

Winter Carnival is an excellent ethnography. Gabbert writes in an engaging style, blending scholarship on festivals with her own observations, interview material, and narratives from fieldwork into a well-integrated interpretive study. Her presentation of one of the central features of the festival, snow sculptures, is a fine study of an interesting folk art that has received little previous academic study, and Gabbert's writing, here, is both scholarly sound and playful. This chapter shows how groups work together to sculpt fanciful entries for the annual competition, and she shows that the process of creating the often whimsical, but sometimes poignant, artwork is central to the ways that residents of McCall forge communal relationships through the festival. This chapter also includes an insightful discussion on ways in which tourism plays a part in identity formation and negotiation as ideas about community life are represented to outsiders. In illustrating this particular chapter, the book's captivating black-and-white photographs and color plates are especially vibrant.

Two parades are other important elements of McCall's Winter Carnival. Gabbert looks at both a community-wide Mardi Gras Parade and the Children's Neon Light Parade as she educes central themes that show how she reads each parade as festive forms of cultural expression. In a particularly interesting discussion, she shows how the imagery of the tropics and warm-weather resort areas of Europe are salient components of Winter Carnival. These types of comparison add to a deeper understanding of ways in which we construct ideas about tourist destinations and winter resorts, as the imagery in Idaho counters assumptions about climate and coldness in the West as well as predominant ideas about vacation destinations. This chapter, in particular, yields some of the deeper insights into ways which history is a malleable entity for constructing ideas about heritage as it relates to tourism.

Gabbert's thoughtful discussion of the various cultural critiques of tourism is especially noteworthy. More cynical scholars would acerbically problematize uncontested notions about community life and tourism, and Gabbert conscientiously considers the implications of tourism development as they relate to economic disparity and distorted representations of history. She offers, however, an interesting defense of the use of history to create local festivals. She posits a construct she identifies as "Folk Reaganomics" for looking at advantages and disadvantages of viewing the festival as an impetus for economic development. The idea that the economic stimulus of these events is oversold to merchants is well taken; these types of festival may often provide immediate benefit only to a small group of business interests. But Gabbert writes of long-term benefits of the festival to both the economic and the social capital of McCall. In this respect, her idea of a "trickle-down" model for economic benefit could benefit from a consideration of other economic principles. For example, endogenous economic multipliers have huge influences on the local economies that support these types of festival. What Gabbert describes as a "trickle-down" economic effect also needs to be seen as a "trickle into and then trickle around" economic influence for her readers to gain a more complex understanding of festivals and local economies.

The final chapter is an insightful analysis of "Sharlie," a lake monster who also is an important participant in McCall's festival. Earlier chapters provide a rich context for understanding the (mostly) benign monster as a rich symbol for the area's heritage. Gabbert's analysis of this symbolism includes an unpacking of ways that Sharlie encodes ideas about the wilderness, history, capitalism, and the commodification of culture. While some of the imagery is indeed scary, Gabbert's overall analysis and tone demonstrates that commerce and boosterism are not necessarily malignant elements of social life but rather resources that can be used for the good of the community.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.