Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

This novel is above all a love ballad sung to a place. The Templeton of the book's title is based upon the author's home town of Cooperstown, New York. Horribly, this numinous little village has come to be associated with the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is an especial travesty -- the assertion that Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown (or indeed that he invented it at all) is dubious.  Readers, however, will connect Cooperstown with one of its most illustrious sons, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who most assuredly wrote classics like The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans.

I have very intense childhood memories of Cooperstown, so I could not approach this book with much objectivity. Had Lauren Groff merely set a soap opera in this timeless village? Here's the synopsis:
In the wake of a wildly disastrous affair with her married archaeology professor, Willie Upton arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in storybook Templeton, New York, looking to hide in the one place to which she swore she'd never come back. As soon as she arrives, though, a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass, changing the very fabric of the town. What's more, Willie's hippie-turned-born-again-Baptist mother, Vi, tells her a secret she's been hiding for nearly thirty years: that Willie's father wasn't the random man from a free-love commune that Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from this very town As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for the truth about her lineage, she discovers that the secrets of her family run deep when dark mysteries come to light and the shocking truth about more than one monster is revealed.
So like her mother before her, Willie Upton returns to Templeton, somewhat in disgrace. Some of us grew up in small towns and consistently hated them, couldn't wait to get out into the bigger world. Willie didn't chafe at the confines of Templeton until she had left it, but ultimately she too feels the claustrophobia of village life.
And, until I visited San Francisco later, I was grateful to have been raised in my small and beautiful town. Then, when I saw that gorgeous, gilded city under the fog, I regretted Templeton and its tiny ways, its subservience to the baseball tourists that came in hordes every year, its lack of even a decent movie theatre. I regretted San Francisco's transvestites in their lovely clothes, the cafes, the furniture stores with imported Indonesian furniture; I thought I would have been a different person, a better one, had I only been raised in a larger place. Like a fish, I thought, I would have grown to fit my bowl.
As she begins to explore the mystery of her paternity, Willie goes back to one of her earliest known ancestors and the founder of Templeton, one Marmaduke Temple, a character loosely based on William Cooper, founder of Cooperstown and father of James Fenimore.  Marmaduke, like the 18th-century land developer that he was, was a bundle of contradictions:  a slave-owning Quaker who enjoyed liquor and ladies. Er, women.  His prudish house-keeper, with the delightful name of Remarkable Prettybones, does her best to maintain her high opinion of him.
To be sure, all that time I had only been slightly bothered that Master Duke went off to the pubs like a common man, not like a gentleman at all. A mushroom gentleman, they called him, a gentleman sprung up overnight from the dung... Also there was always talk of the little girlies Duke looked upon too favorably, such nasty gossip. The chargirl at the Eagle. The cobbler's daughter, Trixie. Even talk of Rosamond Phinney, the belle, though she was just a slip of a girl at the time, that merciless flirt. The only comfort is to thing that when a man was great as Himself, there would always be talk.
Willie has the good fortune to be descended from the Temples and other luminaries of the town, whose lives were documented, and whose diaries were saved for posterity.  In some cases, where the stories turned especially scandalous, letters and photographs were hidden, but Willie manages to unearth even the most unseemly history in which the "monsters" played a part.  During the great Depression, Sarah Franklin Temple learns from her father that the family is in dire straits.  He had built many of the town's landmarks -- the hospital, the gymnasium on the main street, tennis courts, and the castle-like Kingfisher Tower on a small point of land extending into the lake (all of which still stand in today's Cooperstown). Further, Prohibition is similarly afflicting the town's other great family, the Clarkes, who run a brewing company.  (The Busch family owns homes in Cooperstown, and various landmarks bear their name.)  Poor Sarah consents to marry a flashy, smooth-talking baseball commissioner who concocts the specious connection between baseball and Templeton in order to build his hall of fame there, and not long after giving birth to their first and only child, Sarah sinks into the madness which had been lurking within her, which her parents had genteelly described as "great sensitivity".

And so it goes as Willie uncovers the often unsavoury history of her family and of her village. In separate plot threads, Willie reconnects with young men of her own age who remained in Templeton, and she stays in touch with a beloved university friend now living in San Francisco and battling with lupus. The contemporary story lines felt much less gratifying than her ventures into her history. I envy Willie (and Lauren Groff) her long and well-documented family history in such an historic and magical little town. Willie returns to California at the end of the story and will complete her doctoral programme, but she has cemented her bond to Templeton and clarified it. She will always be emotionally rooted in Templeton, wherever she might live.

I'm still puzzling very fondly over "Glimmey" the Templeton cousin of the Loch Ness monster, who dies very early in the pages of the book, being towed somewhat unceremoniously to the shore of Glimmerglass Lake for inspection and removal to the excited biologists' lab.  Willie sees and touches the dead creature's flesh, and her grieving begins. Part of her has died with the lake's mythical monster which has now proven to be real and sadly mortal. Do we all grow up with the equivalent of Glimmey? Some magical, mysterious, elusive being that makes our village or town or neighbourhood sparkle? Adulthood, I suppose, means the end of the magic, the death of the monster. The lucky ones among us can find a new source of numinosity, just as Ms. Groff at the end of the book gives us a baby Glimmey, swimming about deep under the surface of the lake. (The lake is properly called Otsego Lake, on which my father used to sail his little boat, the Saucy Hound.) We need Glimmey, and we need James Fenimore Cooper and his characters -- we need the history and myths that come with whatever place we decide to call HOME.

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