Saturday, November 28, 1998

Testimony: The Name, the Book, and the Spell

by Jack Bellairs (Nov. 28, 1998)
(Originally published at the compleatbellairs.com)

Sometime in the mid-seventies I was rummaging through a discount book bin at the K-Mart in Mishawaka, Indiana. Being a natural tightwad, I seldom pay full price for a book if it can be located any other way! So here I was checking out the books when my eyes fell upon a familiar name -- Bellairs. Bellairs? I had often fantasized about being a popular author but this was the first time I had seen my name in print on a book. A second look told me the author was John Bellairs. Although my name is not John (having the actual birth name of Jack), I still felt a sense of identity with the writer. Picking up the book in my hands, the first thing I did was turn to the flyleaf to find out who this writer was. After reading that information, I glanced again at the cover. An intriguing title, The Face in the Frost, caught my attention, then I read the short blurb about the tale - Prospero, Roger Bacon, two kingdoms, magic and wizardry, talking mirrors and scary cellars! I bought the book for around $1.98!

I read the story in a short time. Having gone through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis's science fiction trilogy and the Narnia Chronicles, (plus most of his overtly Christian works), I knew I had found a writer who appeared to be in the same class as Tolkien and Lewis. And besides, this newly discovered (by me at least) writer's name was Bellairs!

At the time I was unaware that John Bellairs had gone on to writing for young readers but I wanted to find anything I could that he had written. I mentioned this happened in Mishawaka, Indiana, and I should explain that Mishawaka is a "Sister City" of South Bend, Indiana, which, of course, is home to Notre Dame University, John's alma mater. I scoured the card catalogs of the Mishawaka Public Library, the South Bend Library and even that of Notre Dame and came across the two other books that John had written, St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies (which, as Brad Strickland says, is a collection of "witty essays and parodies that gently explored odd corners of [John's] Catholic faith"), and The Pedant and the Shuffly. It was only after going through these three books that I discovered John was writing for young readers. Pretty much in the chronological order of printing, I have enjoyed each one from The House With a Clock in Its Walls right up through the ones that Brad Strickland has completed and/or written after John's untimely death.

I will return to the Bellairs canon later, but first let me take a personal detour. As I mentioned I first became fascinated by the name of the author. For many years my oldest brother, Edward, has been our family historian/genealogist and I, too, have done considerable work in tracking down members of our family tree. Let's face it, we all like to think we're related to somebody famous and I had to ask myself if it were possible that John Bellairs and I, Jack Bellairs, could be related. He was born and raised in Marshall, Michigan. I was born and raised in Rochester, Michigan, a small town about 100 miles east of Marshall. My father came from Nottingham, England, in 1920 and settled in Rochester, Michigan. When I moved to the South Bend/Mishawaka area, I found three Bellairs families. These families traced their roots back to two brothers, William and John Henry Bellairs, who had come to America in the mid 1800s, both born in Lincolnshire, England. William Bellairs sailed to America in 1845, followed by his brother, John Henry, in 1850. Both settled in the general northern Indiana, south central Michigan area. William Bellairs was 25 when he arrived here and was not married, however John Henry was already married and had 3 children when he arrived 5 years later. I have been able to trace the descendents of those 3 children of John Henry Bellairs. If my information is accurate, it would appear that the writer John Bellairs is a descendent of this John Henry Bellairs.

I cannot say with one hundred per cent certainty that John and I are related, but the probability appears high that we are. I would not be so presumptuous as to claim relationship simply because John won fame as a writer. As a matter of fact I, too, am a writer, and have had some success and publication including a weekly column in the Mishawaka Enterprise, reviewing books for the South Bend Tribune and a weekly church letter. I am presently working on a book of my collected poetry, plus finishing a book, The Baptiscopalian Letters, (a humorous and sometimes-irreverent story of the merger of a Baptist and an Episcopalian church). My branch of the Bellairs clan have been able to trace our line to one William Bellairs who, at the young age of 12 in 1844, left his native Lincolnshire and went to Nottingham, never to return home. In work that I have done in tracing our family tree, I found that all branches of the Bellairs that I have come across in America (including my own and the descendents of both William and John Henry) trace their roots back to a small area in Lincolnshire, England, of the mid 1800s. It is highly likely, again not a one hundred per cent certainty that my ancestor who left Lincolnshire for Nottingham in 1844 is a nephew of the 2 brothers who came to America in 1845 and 1850 respectively.

John and I had contact 4 or 5 times through the years. I wrote to him in, I would believe, about 1979 or 1980. He returned a letter including his phone number and we talked by phone a couple times after that. In the spring of 1981, I attended a conference in Concord, Massachusetts. I called John hoping we could get together but he had some matters that precluded a personal visit. Shortly after my return to Mishawaka, I received a package of family genealogical information from John plus a very warm note as follows:
May 29, 1981

Dear Jack,
Enclosed are the genealogical things I mentioned. It was good to talk to you the other night. I wish I could have invited you over, or have come to visit you in Concord, but it just wasn't possible. Hope I can see you (with or without my wife) out in Mishawaka some day. And please do call next time you're in the area. One more note: James Bellairs, the one who fought in the Civil War, is my great-grandfather. My grandfather was Henry M. Bellairs, a train engineer for the now-defunct Detroit, Toledo, and Milwaukee (the old D.T. and M.). He died of stomach cancer about six years before I was born.

Sorry for the poor quality of the Xeroxed materials. Take care, and I hope to see you someday.

Best,
John Bellairs

It goes without saying, of course, that this short note is among my most treasured possessions! Whether we are related or not, the fact remains that John Bellairs was a great writer. Having read all the books, indeed having re-read some of them several times, I am continually amazed at the depth of his knowledge in several areas. His attention to minute historical details, his ability to recall childhood scenes and emotions, his vast lore of magic and wizardry, his superb talent for blending horror and humor - all point to a first class mind. One cannot overlook the fact that John must have been totally committed to the writing process. Many great books have never seen the light of day, nor have a space on the bookshelf, because the writer never takes pen in hand and writes! While reading through one of Brad Strickland's pieces, I noted that John was always writing and rewriting, one trait that separates a good from a great writer.

I find that I have some ambivalence when selecting favorites, e.g., characters, books, stories. Professor Roderick Childermass is by far my favorite character. Perhaps because I taught in a small college as adjunct faculty for seven years and like to think of myself as somewhat of a curmudgeon I am drawn to this rotten tempered but kindly old man. (Although I hasten to add I do not have a rotten temper!) However the Lewis Barnavelt series is my favorite of the 3 series most likely because of its setting in Michigan, my state of birth and childhood. Whenever John mentions a real place (the Upper Peninsula, Petosky, Traverse City, the thick forests of the Lower Peninsula) I can identify because I have been there. Also as a young boy I was overweight and can relate to so many of the emotions Lewis displays.

Occasionally authors have a greater following in death than in life. Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have attained that status. So too, it would seem, has John Bellairs. That is one reason I am not reticent to mention these three men in the same breath. Although John was not an overtly Christian writer as was Lewis and, to a lesser degree, Tolkien, his religion comes through quite strong in his books. Father Higgins, the Catholic Church, parochial schools, the prayers, holy water and the tiny slivers from the true cross - these all point to a man who knew his religion very well. Some Christians may be bothered by John's use of magic, wizardry and witchcraft. But I think we must remember that he was writing stories, entertaining and scary ones at that. In the stories John wrote, goodness always prevails. In this respect he parallels the works of Lewis and Tolkien. C.S. Lewis maintains that all good comes from God. Thus, whether it is Mrs. Zimmermann swinging her magic umbrella to ward off evil or Professor Childermass using Holy Water to repel a ghostly specter, can we not say that it is a triumph of Good over Evil no matter the avenue? That is why I believe that in the broad genre of Fantasy, whenever I think of trilogies, there are 3 great ones that have been written, Lewis's science fiction trilogy, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and John Bellairs's original three Barnavelt books, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring.

Many years ago I became captivated by a name on a book cover and read that book with great delight. From that point on I have been under the spell of this man who was able to conjure up wizards, witches, magic umbrellas, dark scary cellars, talking mirrors, time travel and a multitude of adventures - all through the words he put on paper.

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