Sunday, March 14, 2010

'The Monsters of Templeton' Mixes History With Fantasy

I finished Lauren Groff's lengthy tale of a small upstate New York town, The Monsters of Templeton, just a few minutes ago. I'm quite sad to leave behind the world of Wilhemenia Upton and her secretive, cantankerous ancestors. However, since I've given the last week of my life to the book, I was also ready in some ways to be finished and leave it behind. It is an original story crafted through old letters, current events, historical documents, and imaginary narratives from people long dead.

Willie Upton has come home to Templeton, New York, to figure out what her next step in life should be. She is skinny as a rail and has short, wispy hair; she looks almost ill. The same morning of her return, a rower discovers the body of a gargantuan lake monster floating belly up in Lake Glimmerglass. As the townspeople, national media, and scientists flutter over this new-found animal, Willie tries to make sense of her own life and of what her hometown has become.

Her mother, Vivienne, is a hippie turned nurse turned born-again Christian. Willie feels she's lost her mother as Vi tools around town with the local church's pastor, a heavy cross hung around her neck. Willie's best friend Carissa is thousands of miles away in San Fransisco, ill and needing care of her own. Local boys (well, now grown men) who Willie went to high school with begin to pop up all over the place, vying for her attention. But Willie has a secret: the main reason she came home is to decide what's best for herself and the unborn baby growing inside her. In the midst of this already looming crisis, Vi surprises Willie with the news that her absent father isn't who she thought he was, and Willie sets out on a mission to find out who he actually is.

Groff set the novel in a fictional town, but it is mirrored on the town of Cooperstown, New York, the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Groff was born there and grew up there, prompting her to write a sort of love story to the town with this, her first novel. Although some names have changed, Groff includes many factual businesses and people.

Similarities between fictional Templeton and real-life Cooperstown:
  • The fictional Templeton is named after its founder Marmaduke Temple, as Cooperstown was named for first landowner Judge William Cooper
  • The famous Glimmerglass Opera is nearby, which Groff references in the book often
  • The Farmer's Museum is a real place in Cooperstown, attributed to Templeton in the novel
  • The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is in Cooperstown, which is also discussed often in the book (especially the tourists who run rampant in the town)
  • The New York State Historical Association has its library in Cooperstown, and in the book Willie Upton does much of her research there
  • One of the novel's characters is heir to a large brewing company; Cooperstown boasts its very own Brewery Ommegang, which hasn't been a long-standing family company, but rather has been brewing beer for fifteen years or so
  • In the novel local author Jacob Franklin Temple creates a legacy for Templeton and provides clues to its history, much as real-life author James Fenimore Coooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans) does for Cooperstown; Groff attributes Cooper's most famous character, Natty Bumppo, to Temple in her novel
The novel was fascinating, and I loved its characters, especially Carissa, Willie, and Vi. But it took a long time to get through. Groff went back and forth in time, from the current situation with Willie to her research involving her ancestors. Some of the historical writing was interesting, but I must admit there were also parts I simply skipped. It also seemed difficult to follow the story and/or their connection to the story at some points in the historical sections. With so many ancestor characters (I counted more than forty on a family tree Groff includes at the end of the book), it was hard to keep them all straight, even with the occasional family tree to help.

Difficulties aside, The Monsters of Templeton was a unique novel and a nice breath of fresh air after what seems like similar stories being turned out by various authors year after year. Groff has a hit with her first novel, and I can't wait to read more. She has also published a book of short stories, and it sounds like (from her website posts) she has also just finished a new novel which is in her editor's hands at the moment.

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