Saturday, November 15, 2014

Where's There: Sugar Loaf

(The third in a series about places or things John Bellairs didn't write about in towns where he lived.)

When it comes to the three cities that John Bellairs created for his books, it’s easy to understand how New Zebedee and Duston Heights came about, what with his close association to his native Michigan and later home in Massachusetts. How Hoosac, Minnesota fits into the equation is often forgotten or perhaps not known. For two years in the early 1960s John taught at the now-defunct College of Saint Teresa in Winona, a city in southeast Minnesota. It may not have been his favorite place (consider he was coming to rural Minnesota after years of living and working in Chicago’s Hyde Park area) but we’re glad he was there if only for it to help foster some Fidgettine inspiration. But more on Saint Fidgeta later.

Like all of his books, John takes inspiration from his hometown of Marshall. Anthony Monday’s high school, his father’s “cigar store” (in reality, saloon), and the eight-sided house of Alpheus Winterborn all have real-life antecedents back in Michigan. John seemingly was inspired, too, by something he possibly came across from living in Massachusetts. Hoosac is an Algonquian word meaning “place of stones.” The Algonquian are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups and historically their people were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior around the Great Lakes – which means it could have been used in the Minnesota area. However Hoosac (or Hoosic) is mostly regulated to the east coast, as seen in a Massachusetts mountain range, a tunnel going through that mountain range, a town in New York, and a tributary of the Hudson River.

For the most part we identified above all the major locations in Hoosac covered in the four-book Anthony Monday series. We get a sense of Hoosac’s geography throughout The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn but the story mainly discusses the intimate inner-workings of the public library where Miss Myra Eells and Anthony work. The remaining three stories take us on the road – much like Johnny Dixon’s adventures – to elsewhere in Minnesota, nearby Wisconsin, or even Canada. There are some definite Winona-area inspirations, though. We can’t read the description of the immense Hoosac Public Library without thinking of the historic Winona County Courthouse. A few blocks north of that courthouse along the Mississippi River is Levee Park – and a levee is something that a land-locked city such as Marshall would never have. Southeast of town is Lake Winona, mirroring the man-made Lake Hoosac. Even the Immaculate Conception Academy brings to mind the College of Saint Teresa or even Saint Mary’s University.

Our point is that we don’t see much of what makes Hoosac unique.

Of course it’s hard to guess what more of Minnesota John would have written about had he lived. At his death he was at work on the fourth book about Lewis Barnavelt and already had eight books completed about Johnny Dixon. Brad Strickland masterfully continued Lewis and Johnny’s adventures, bringing the count of each series to twelve. Still no new tales of Anthony Monday have come forward since the posthumous The Mansion in the Mist (1992) was published.

In essence, just as Hoosac was beginning to sound like an interesting place to visit someone pulled a Brigadoon and all roads leading to it vanished. We’re left with record of its existing but few details of its grandeur. If you go on the strict assumption that what’s in Winona must be the source of something in Hoosac then one such place that we’re surprised John never included was the Sugar Loaf, a rocky pinnacle rising 500 feet above Lake Winona. The result of quarrying in the late 1800s, its name refers to the resemblance to the conical loaves that sugar used to be packaged and sold in. Much like the Hag mountain formation Bellairs wrote about in The Curse of the Blue Figurine, more than a few local businesses incorporate Sugar Loaf into their names.

Or maybe Hoosac didn't have this geographic feature.  Think about that for a second, Emerson Eells.

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