Wisconsin Village At Epicenter Of Presidential Campaign, Gay Marriage Debate
This could be the headline of a Leo Townsend article about the conflict in his hometown of Endeavor, Wis.
The fictional reporter might include his efforts to get an exclusive interview with the first openly gay man who's a serious candidate for the White House. Leo might add details about his family's failing farm -- plus his troubled relationship with his father and a secret kept by his younger brother Eddie.
It would make one hell of a story at Leo's paper -- The Chicago Examiner -- if his editor let him write the piece; the reporter is too involved in every aspect.
Leo tries his best to be objective but sometimes finds himself at the center of a story. That was the case for his first starring role in the novel Carpe Diem, Illinois. Ditto for the sequel, God On Mayhem Street.
For the sequel, author Kristin Oakley moves the action from northwest Illinois to Endeavor, a town Oakley thought she invented.
We'll have more on the real Endeavor, Wis., in a bit.
God on Mayhem Street is our Read With Me selection for May. The story begins at the gravesite of Leo's mother immediately after the funeral, which Leo avoided because he wanted to mourn alone. His father Frank is outraged that his eldest son missed the wake and services -- claiming he dishonored his mother.
Leo believes his father has resented him ever since he left the family farm to pursue journalism. Their relationship became further strained two years earlier when Leo's younger brother Eddie was paralyzed during a stampede at the Chicago Triathlon; Frank blames Leo for not rescuing Eddie, despite the older son's strenuous efforts to do so.
After the funeral, amid friends and relatives, Eddie does his best to keep Leo and Frank apart:
Leo decided to mention Mary. “My girlfriend offered to come, but I was on the west coast until early this morning. I didn’t know when I’d get here.”
Frank, passing by, said, “Convenient. Now you don’t have to be embarrassed by your old man. The farmer.” He vanished into the kitchen, followed by Aunt Edna. Leo started after him.
Eddie blocked the hall with his wheelchair.
“He keeps…” Leo stammered. “I can’t believe he—”
"You’ve done your time. Go.”
Leo hesitated until he heard his father say, “Don’t know why he bothered to come at all.”
Shaking his head, Leo hugged his brother and took off for Chicago.
The next time Leo and Eddie speak is a few days later, when Leo has the biggest "get" of his career: an exclusive interview with Griffin Carlisle, the presidential candidate mentioned earlier. The angle? Everyone in the nation wants to know the name of Griffin's partner -- the man who would be the first First Gentleman.
Leo and Griffin meet at an Italian restaurant on Michigan Ave. After answering basic questions about his education and career, Griffin puts his cards on the table:
“You’re looking for the ‘inside scoop’, as they say. You’re hoping that you might find out more about my personal life.”
“I’m also interested in your take on the issues and your political strategy.”
“I appreciate your honesty. So I’ll be honest with you.” Griffin set his menu aside. “I agreed to this interview because I wanted to meet Eduardo Townsend’s brother.”
The menu slipped from Leo’s hands. “How do you know Eddie?”
“Excuse me.” The maître d’ approached their table. “We’ve received an emergency call for you, Mr. Townsend.”
“Who is it?” Leo asked.
“A Mr. Eddie Townsend.”
“Speak of the devil,” Griffin said.
“Did he say why…?” Leo began.
“No. But he sounded upset.”
“Take your call,” Griffin insisted. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’m sorry. I won’t be long.” Steaming, Leo followed the maître d’ to the reservations desk and picked up the phone.
“Dad’s had a heart attack.”
Leo's editor scrambles to send another reporter while Leo hurries to meet his brother at a hospital in Madison. From there, the story moves back to the family farm in Endeavor, where the Townsends try to fend off a foreclosure attempt. This takeover is led by village president Jacob Landry, a pastor who claims he wants the land to build a mega-church. We soon learn Jacob has another motive for trying to seize the farm.
As Jacob schemes, Griffin visits the Townsend farm to finish his interview with Leo. When the homophobic Jacob hears this, he rallies the town's faithful to protest.
This puts the Village of Endeavor at the epicenter of the debate between supporters of same-sex marriage and fundamentalist Christians who oppose it. In an interview with WNIJ, author Oakley describes how she approached this conflict.
"I have friends who are homosexuals, so I know what they've gone through," Oakley said, "so I wanted to bring that across in a lot of different ways. I also am sympathetic to people who are opposed to that lifestyle, that it just goes against their religion."
Oakley says she was fascinated by the notion of a gay candidate's partner coming out -- not just to his family but to an entire country. As for international implications, Oakley's story touches on issues that could arise between a gay president and leaders from countries where homosexuality is outlawed.
"All of those I thought was a really good blend of how we can get the emotions going," she said. "Hopefully, I portrayed that well enough that, whatever side you're on, you can feel empathy for the characters."
In Oakley's first book, we learn that Leo came from Endeavor. Oakley says she picked the name because she liked the way it sounded; but she didn't know about the real Endeavor, Wis. When she learned about it, she and her editor visited the town which is in the Portage-Wisconsin Dells area.
"My town in the book is about 1,500 to 2,000 people," she said. "The real Endeavor, Wisconsin, has about 450 people."
Oakley says it's located in a beautiful part of the state. "But it's a very bizarre little town," she said before quickly adding, "The people are wonderful."
She says the town is dominated by an abandoned building at the top of a hill. "It looks like a factory that's all brick," she said. "It was boarded up, it was broken down -- it felt like a Stephen King novel -- and it overlooks the whole little town."
Oakley says she did a lot of research but used only a little of the town's history for her book. The rest she shared with local residents. "I went to a book signing in their library," she said. "We had a great turnout, and it was fun talking about their little town."
Oakley co-founded the In Print Professional Writers organization in Rockford. She also teaches creative writing at UW-Madison's Division of Continuing Studies.
Next month, our Read With Me series turns to non-fiction with Joe Bonomo's Field Recordings from the Inside: Essays.
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