Friday, February 25, 2011

How Much Marshall?

I recently thumbed through The Figure in the Shadows and came across a few memorable excerpts of Lewis happily walking along Main Street, seeing a fountain at the traffic circle, and later encountering the titular figure outside of a Masonic Temple. These are memorable scenes, yes, and ones with a clear setting.

But something jogged in my mind: at times New Zebedee, as John wrote about it, comes across as nothing more than a small Midwest town in Michigan that just happened to have a few passing similarities to John’s hometown. New Zebedee didn’t seem to become “Marshall-like” until Strickland’s books. Or did it?

Meaning, in The House with a Clock in its Walls we don’t see much of the town except for the house and some brief scenes downtown. By Figure, Lewis interacts more with New Zebedee and readers see a somewhat better-defined community. The following book, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, shows nothing of the city, and John’s next two novels in the series take place completely outside Michigan. Granted, John may have decided to return to Marshall and use its forgotten opera house for the plot of The Doom of the Haunted Opera but to what extent is unknown.

Strickland, on the other hand, has mostly made New Zebedee a Marshall clone with prominent, major landmarks such as the American Museum of Magic and the Honolulu House reimaged in the Bellairsian universe. Minor allusions to Schuler’s Restaurant and the National House Inn appear in other novels and one can only wonder how many of these (or other places) John would have written about given the time.

In response, fan Jon Caulkett says he knew Bellairs was writing specifically about Marshall right from the first chapter of House.
"His description of the town as Lewis arrived was quite distinct, talking about the GAR Hall, the fountain, and Heemsoth's Rexall drugstore in the center of the main block. Bellairs captured the flavor of the town as only someone could who had lived there. Strickland focused on specific landmarks, more in the manner of someone who had visited. Another interesting fact about Marshall that you wouldn't discover until you had been there for some time is that after 150-plus years of habitation, many of the original families still live there, often in their ancestors' houses, which is pretty rare in America."
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