A new novel that takes place in Lenox, MA, pulls from the childhood memories of the author to craft a haunted landscape of mystery that hearkens to another time for the town.
Dave Fromm’s The Duration follows two childhood friends who reunite in their hometown of Lenox, with one friend acting out his obsessions with the past.
Fromm, a lawyer married to another lawyer, returned to Western Massachusetts in 2008 after some years in California. The couple settled in Longmeadow, south of Springfield, but Fromm’s mother, Maryjane — a former Eagle columnist — still resided in Lenox, and Fromm would bring his kids to visit her often on drives down Route 20, which rekindled the Berkshires’ hold on his imagination.
“Route 20 is a really interesting and crazy drive, where you’re driving through the hill towns and seeing all kinds of statues and sculptures, and things rising out of the mist,” he said. “I just loved it.”
This made Fromm think back to his childhood and, in particular, the legend of Columbus the elephant, supposedly buried somewhere in Lenox. The story goes that the circus was parading through North Adams on its way to Pittsfield when, according to newspaper accounts, Columbus fell through a bridge and was injured. The elephant died a week later.
“The story goes that he limps back down into Lenox, where he slouches off the road and collapses in the woods, and he dies there,” Fromm said. “He’s so big that they leave the body where it fell. So, there’s this legend about an actual buried elephant, an elephant skeleton, somewhere in Lenox, and nobody’s found it. There are some people who are really into this and who are pretty sure they know where it is, but they can’t verify it for various reasons.”
This was a common story for kids to talk about when Fromm was growing up in Lenox, and was just one aspect of the town’s function as a mysterious playground for kids. It was these childhood years, the landmarks of it and the emotions the landscape elicited in him, that inspired Fromm’s novel.
“We lived on a street called Schermerhorn Park, which is right in the middle of Lenox, and you could cut through the woods to the back part of the Bellefontaine estate,” said Fromm. “This was long before it was turned into Canyon Ranch and those woods back there used to be full of half-crumbling statues, empty pools, all kinds of neat stuff. Old gazebos that had been abandoned and overgrown with trees and bushes, and saplings. As kids, it was just an amazing place to explore. The mansions themselves were there hulking in the mist or lumbering out of the woods.”
Fromm was able to witness the transformation of the decrepit, haunted remnants of the past into lovely structures meant to document and celebrate that same past, but that hasn’t done much to erase the earlier sensations from his psyche.
“We used to walk to middle school past what is now Ventfort Hall and it was completely empty and destitute,” Fromm said. “I remember one time we walked past it and someone had left a mannequin leaning against the window and it scared the heck out of us. We just hauled ass, because it was about a quarter-mile to our house. We just ran as fast as we could to get home.”
Certain scenes in the book are based on specific things that happened to Fromm, as with stealing a giant fish from a mini golf course on Pittsfield-Lenox Road and dumping it at the high school, and a scene at a quarry in West Stockbridge.
People from his past have also figured into the novel, or, at least, their names, as with a character named Chickie, after someone with that nickname from his childhood.
“I panicked at the end and thought, ‘Gee, I should probably check with the guy and make sure he’s OK with this,’” said Fromm. “Of course, now he’s grown up and a father and a business person. I found him on social media and reached out to him and said, ‘Hey, this is a really odd message, since we haven’t seen each other in close to 30 years, but I wrote this novel, it’s set in the Berkshires and it has this character whose name is Chickie and some bad things happen to him. Is that going to be an issue for you?’”
Fromm said the original Chickie didn’t have a problem with his namesake. But it points to one issue for Fromm — the fear of how people of Lenox might receive the novel. Fromm faced it before with his previous book, Expatriate Games, a memoir of the year he spent playing semi-pro basketball in the Czech Republic, so he’s toughened to it a bit, it’s just that he understands this one hits home.
“I’m hoping people who read it will see it as what I described in one place as a love letter to the Berkshires,” he said. “It may be complicated to see that because it’s not entirely laudatory. It’s not simply praising the Berkshires. I hope it’s taking a more honest but heart-felt look at what it was like to grow up there and all of the magic and mystery that went into childhood and how that affected the experiences of young people who grew up in that environment and carried it with them going forward.”