Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discovering Hoosac

by guest contributor, Ben McLeod:

When I was about nine or ten years old, in the very early 1980's, I checked out the Winona Public Library's copy of The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. I probably took it back into the stacks, which is where I liked to curl up with creepy finds. But before you write this off as another fan's first-time discovery of Mr. Bellairs work, let me explain. I felt like Bastian in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story because as Anthony Monday wandered around the Hoosac Public Library, I began to think it was strangely familiar. As I read further and the novel's description of Hoosac developed, I came to realize that it was, in fact, Winona, Minnesota under a different name.

I cannot describe to you the frisson of reading a book about a mysterious library and a treasure hidden within while sitting in the very library being described. As I read more of the Anthony Monday books certain particulars made it very, very clear that Hoosac was in fact Winona. When I tried to point out to parents and librarians that these books were about our town, I was met with disinterested disbelief. Adults simply assumed that I was projecting myself onto the characters of the books.

Later, as I grew up I tried to find out what I could about the author. In those pre-internet days I couldn't dig up very much beyond the facts that Mr. Bellairs had lived most of his life in Michigan, and had set many of his stories there. I felt frustrated and stymied that I could find no discernible connection to what I knew to be true: Hoosac was Winona.

I went on to read almost all of his books, and wrote my own first novel at 19, where I referred to my home town as Hoosac throughout. My subsequent novels have all been deeply indebted to Mr. Bellairs – I have always tried to write the sort of thing I would have been excited to find on the shelf, just as excited as I was by The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn.

But I had never been able to find a connection until I found the Bellairsia site. The detailed (if not always flattering) description of Mr. Bellairs time teaching at St. Teresa's College was like the lifting of an ancient weight off my shoulders. Finally! Here was the connection I always knew had to exist! I can't blame anyone for not being crazy about living in Winona – it's not exactly Manhattan, although it is growing and has a rapidly developing cultural scene. I couldn't wait to get out when I was a young man in the 1990's, so I can't begin to imagine how much more isolated and provincial it might have seemed to a newcomer in 1960.

I live in Chicago now (where I worked for some time at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park, another of Bellairs' haunts) but I get back to Winona/Hoosac on a fairly regular basis. In a curious parallel, when I lived for a time slightly downriver from Winona in La Crosse, Wisconsin, still in adolescence, I became semi-obsessed with Stephen King and Peter Straub's novel The Talisman, which I checked out from the La Crosse Public Library. Many years later they wrote a sequel to that book entitled Black House, which for no reason I've yet discovered, was set in a thinly disguised La Crosse. In that novel, Hoosac nee Winona is known as Great Bluff, and is a haunted region....

Highway 61 is apparently some inspiring, if creepy territory.

Thanks for the great site. I'm foreseeing some re-readings in my future!

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