I was expecting something very different from this book, with the talk of monsters on the front and praise from Stephen King on the back. I was expecting eerieness at the least. Horror, maybe. There’s a smidgen of eerieness here and there. Overall it is a relatively straightforward historical fiction built up around a complex genealogy. Willie Upton returns to her childhood home in disgrace one summer, where she is informed by her mother Vi that her unknown father is actually known. Distantly related to them via the town’s illustrious founder, Marmaduke Temple. One of those historical, pseudo-aristocratic families where everyone winds up related to everyone else. A collection of scandals. Groff’s brilliant idea to sprinkle steadily expanding family trees throughout her novel greatly simplifies keeping track of what Willie has learned in her quest to figure out who her father is. The slowly growing tree is interspersed with portraits and photos of whichever ancestor is being discussed in that chapter. Furthermore Groff, apparently just for kicks and giggles, writes roughly half the chapters from the point of view of all sorts of various characters and all sorts of various times. Sometimes it’s a direct ancestor. Sometimes it’s not. I could imagine this being a fascinating book to read if you were very familiar with American history and the works of James Fenimore Cooper, as they strongly contributed to Groff’s creation. I think I read The Last of the Mohicans once, so I can’t help you there.
The other strange part of this book is the relationship between Willie and her mother Vi. They’re both complex, strong-willed characters. Vi raises Willie alone, only confessing that she does know who Willie’s father is upon Willie’s unexpected return to Templeton when a series of bad decisions comes back to haunt her. The quest to figure out who her father is gives Willie something to focus on, instead of chewing herself apart inside. While growing yet another illegitimate baby; those tend to crop up in this story. (Along with a few murders, domestic abuse, child abuse, and rape. And some casual racism to round everything out. Why not?) Seventy percent of the interactions between Willie and her mother are completely foreign to me. I couldn’t imagine relating with a parent that way. Then again, I wasn’t raised by hippies, so perhaps that contributes? The other thing I can’t really wrap my head around is the addition of the monster in the lake. The “book club” questions at the back ask you to consider what the monster means to the town, and how its death in the opening chapter affects them. Other than attracting international attention (akin to Nessie’s body surfacing in Scotland), and making the townsfolk sad, I can’t see how it does. But Groff has creatively woven in strands of story that don’t seem to connect to anything until the very end, so it’s likely I’m just missing something.
It’s interesting, in light of Willie’s archaeology work searching for the first humans to come across the Bering land bridge into Alaska, to flip to the almost last page and see her family tree filled out, and realize that’s just a small segment. It doesn’t stop with Marmaduke Temple and Hetty Avarell. It goes back and back ages beyond them, beyond writing, beyond tools. Beyond family names. Willie imagines all that history piled up behind her, pushing her into the future. Keeping her going. Steady. It makes sense that she wants to be an archaeologist, to uncover that buried mountain beneath her. So she knows what she’s standing on. Considering the recent popularity of genealogy websites, she’s far from alone. Though I doubt most people have her skills, or the fortune to be searching for information on a well-known family that founded an entire town. Which must certainly make things much easier. Hopefully most people’s family trees aren’t as complex as Willie’s. Only one way to find out.