by BEN MCLEOD
Winona can be a spooky place in the fall. Gloomy skies, rattling leaves on skeletal trees, looming old buildings ... so where are our ghost stories? La Crosse has Rick Harsch's eerie, dark Driftless trilogy, even Trempealeau has a Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration, "Black House," the sequel to their 1984 collaboration "The Talisman." But few Winonans are aware that a series of young adult novels by acclaimed writer John Bellairs, author of "The House with a Clock in its Walls," is set right here, in a version of Winona Bellairs called Hoosac.
The first book in the series, "The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn," was published in 1978. The 1985 edition featured a cover illustration by renowned artist Edward Gorey, who frequently added his dark, distinct style to Bellairs' books. Set in the early 1950s, the story introduces the reader to Anthony Monday, a hard-working boy desperate to help his cash-strapped family. To this end he spends his free time helping his best friend, Miss Eells, at the Hoosac library. They drink tea, she teaches Anthony to play chess, and they share secret messages in a Civil War code that Miss Eells taught him.
The Hoosac library plays a large part in "The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn." While the Winona Public Library is a sturdy yet elegant neoclassical monument, Bellairs describes the Hoosac library as "a castle out of a fairy tale. [It] was a bit smaller than most castles, being only two stories high. But it had battlements like a castle, and funny little bulges here and there with narrow loophole windows, the kind that soldiers might shoot through when they saw the enemy coming." A tower crowns the library and "it was covered in fantastic carvings […] nestled in all the angles and corners of the building." It's possible that Bellairs was referring to the Winona County Courthouse, which has the tower the library lacks, but many of his descriptions fit the tone and older interior sections of the Winona Public Library.
In the book, the library was built and donated to the city by the eponymous industrialist Winterborn in 1929. He made his money from the Winterborn Silverware Company, a plating foundry which still employs half the town. Winterborn was an inventor, an archeologist, and eccentric. Local rumor has it that Winterborn hid a fantastic treasure somewhere in the library before his death. "The shades and drapes on all the windows were pulled tight, but people who passed the library that week thought they could catch glimpses of him going to and fro with a lighted candle in his hand."
Bellairs describes Hoosac in the second chapter of the book: "It was a long, skinny town, shaped like a cigar, with the Mississippi on one side and a long artificial lake called Lake Hoosac on the other. All around the town the land was as flat as a tabletop, but in the distance, on either side, rose tall bluffs. The bluffs were very tall, six or seven hundred feet high, and they were covered with trees. The bluffs on the western side of the town were a long way away, but the ones on the eastern side were quite close. They seemed to tower over the town …" Aside from having his geography mixed up (where in Minnesota can you find the Wisconsin side of the river to the west?) Bellairs was clearly telling scary stories about Winona.
Young readers in the Winona Public Library in the 1980s might have felt sympathetic with young Anthony Monday, who loved to wander the building, peering at all the architectural details and searching for the building's hidden secrets. But for an observant reader, small details begin to build up, and it quickly becomes clear that the town Bellairs is describing is in fact Winona. In "The Dark Secret of Weatherend," Miss Eells and Anthony travel to an estate sale near a small town called Rolling Stone, and go on a drive down the memorably-named Winona Post Road. They visit Miss Eells' favorite ice cream stand in Dresbach. There are undoubtably a lot of Minnesota towns with a Catholic girls college ("The Immaculate Conception Academy,") and a "Levee Park," but when Bellairs describes a storm rolling across Hoosac during a crucial scene in "Alpheus Winterborn," pinning the town down as it streams across the bluffs, and the subsequent flood which echoes our own flood in 1965, the proof appears unavoidable.
John Bellairs came to Winona in 1963 to teach English at St. Theresa's. The Michigan native earned his Masters in English from the University of Chicago, and taught for a number of schools around the Midwest before moving finally to Massachusetts. In 1973 he broke through with "The House with a Clock in its Walls," which along with "The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn," was adapted to television. His stories, set almost exclusively in small towns, aren't graphic or particularly violent. Written clearly and simply, they are an excellent entry point into reading for children. They capture a wistful yet sinister world, not unlike Rowling's Harry Potter novels. Adults listen to children and take them seriously. Mysteries and adventure are everywhere, for the observant kids who take the time to look around. And while sinister secrets lurk, waiting for the unsuspecting, it's always children — with the help of some occasionally befuddled adults — who save the day.
The four books that comprise the Hoosac series also include "The Dark Secret of Weatherend," "The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb" and "The Mansion in the Mist."
Thanks to the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust for permission to use the cover image, and to Bellairsia.com for archival and research assistance.