The Monsters of Templeton
is a 2008 novel by the American author Lauren Groff, who takes autobiographical aspects of her own life and family and weaves them into a genre-busting tale that combines historical fiction, gothic horror, and domestic drama.
Most reviews and summaries of The Monsters of Templeton
simply reprint the first line of the novel because, well, it’s a doozy of a first line: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the 50-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”
The story’s narrator and protagonist is a 28-year-old woman named Willie Upton, a Stanford doctoral student who is forced to abandon those ambitions just a few months short of completing a PhD in archaeology. The reason for her leave of absence is that she is engaged in an affair with her married advisor at Stanford while on an archaeology trip to Alaska that results in her pregnancy. To make matters worse, Willie attempts to run over her professorial paramour’s wife with her car. In the wake of the scandal, Willie returns to her hometown of Templeton, New York, which is directly based on the author’s real-life hometown of Cooperstown, New York, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame which was founded in 1786 by William Cooper, the father of the renowned American author James Fenimore Cooper.
On the same day Willie arrives, the townspeople discover the corpse of a giant, 50-foot prehistoric-looking creature eight miles outside Templeton in Lake Glimmerglass, the name given to the real-life Lake Otsego in Cooper’s classic novel series, The Leatherstocking Tales
. But while the monster plays into the book’s archaeological motifs, the story that unfolds is less about the genealogy of prehistoric sea creatures and more about Willie’s own genealogy, which she takes great pains to research during her opportunity at home.
The first sign that Willie’s family history is not what it seems arrives when the protagonist’s mom, Vi, reveals to Willie that nothing she’s been told about her father is true. Contrary to what Vi has always told Willie, Willie’s father was not one of three mystery men Vi supposedly had affairs with in San Francisco nearly three decades earlier. In fact, Willie’s father lives in Templeton, and Willie vows to discover his identity. While Vi encourages Willie’s quest, she won’t come out and tell her daughter the man’s identity because “it wouldn’t be fair to him.” The only clue Vi provides is that he is a descendant of the town’s founder, Marmaduke Temple, a proxy character that represents the real-life William Cooper.
Groff depicts Willie’s detective work by recreating imaginary and loosely-historical letters, legal documents, and novel manuscripts, many of them written in the style of The Leatherstocking Tales.
One of Willie’s first leads is that Marmaduke Templeton is known to have had red hair and blue eyes. Therefore, Willie presumes, that any modern or historical figures with these features are part of Marmaduke’s ancestral lineage and in turn could be her father. Some of the ginger-haired relatives throughout history include chattel slaves, indigenous Americans, and other members of the underclass which suggests that Marmaduke and his spawn are, to use a favorite term of Willie’s, “rapscallions.” It’s also clear to the reader that the “Monsters” of the book’s title refers less to the prehistoric sea beast and more to these questionable progenitors of the twisted and gnarled Temple family tree.
As an author, Groff imbues these voices from the past with so much life that they take on the quality of ghosts, thus lending a gothic element to the proceedings. Also, when the narrative jumps from Willie’s perspective into the heads of the slave girl Hetty Averell or the Native American Chief Chingachgook—even when no documents or manuscripts are present to serve as delivery vessels for these stories—Groff seems to suggest these aren’t merely Willie’s ancestors but her past lives, underscoring the supernatural in the book’s storytelling.
In the end, Willie discovers that Ezekiel Felcher is her father. But as with many books, the importance lies in the questioning, not the answer. And indeed, Groff succeeds in crafting a book that lives up to that electrifying first sentence. As Publishers Weekly
puts it in its review, “Readers will delight in Willie’s sharp wit and Groff’s creation of an entire world, complete with a lake monster and illegitimate children.”