Tichelaar’s New Tale of Marquette Highlights T.R.’s 1913 Visit
When Teddy Came to Town by Tyler R. Tichelaar tells the story of the brief tenure of then former President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s visit to Marquette in the Spring of 1913. Roosevelt had been accused of being a drunkard by local newspaper editor George Newett, proprietor of the Iron Ore, in an October 12th 1912 editorial. To wit: “Roosevelt lies and curses in the most disgusting way; he gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.” Newett, a former ardent supporter of Roosevelt, vented his spleen on account of how the former President had split the Republican party in twain with his progressive Bull Moose party—thus directly threatening Republican success in the presidential election only weeks away. As the book opens, T.R. is arriving for the libel trial to have his day in court, or rather as it turns out, about a week in court. However, the Roosevelt-Newett libel trial is really the ”MacGuffin” here, a device or catalyst to bring people together around which a drama will form. That drama is an existential crisis in the life of fictional newsman Matthew Newman, who left Marquette as a young adult to pursue a New York City career in journalism.
Tichelaar’s cast includes a veritable Who’s Who of Marquette society in the pre-World War I era: Frances White Shiras (granddaughter of industrialist Peter White), George Shiras III (pioneering naturalist and photographer) who hosted Roosevelt at his home in Marquette, and others such as Bob Hume, caretaker of Presque Isle park, who make cameo appearances or are invoked as T.R. tours Marquette and its environs. Several fictional characters from other books in Tichelaar’s ongoing historical saga also make an appearance, most notably the insidious Lysander Blackmore, a banker with no more scruples than required by law. When Teddy Came to Town reads just as well as a standalone book since no a priori knowledge of the characters is needed.
The plot revolves around a dark night of the soul that newsman Matthew Newman experiences. Being called back to Marquette to cover the Teddy Roosevelt trial instigates his mid-life crisis by way of forcing him to look at issues he has buried for twenty years. After losing Frances, the girl of his dreams , to a childhood friend, George Shiras III, Matthew was determined to leave Marquette in the dust, returning only for brief holidays despite his affection for his dear sister Delia. His visits are also made bittersweet by run-ins with his drunkard brother-in-law Roger—Delia’s husband—who seems to have a Midas touch despite his advanced alcoholism. Flashbacks in Matthew’s life act as guideposts as he struggles to come to terms with how his life turned out, such as his father’s excommunication from the Quaker church and an attempt to return to his boyhood home in New York (from before his family migrated to Marquette).
Many heady cultural themes of the day swirl throughout the novel, such as the first rumblings of a Prohibition movement, women’s suffrage, and veterans. The latter is sparked by the trick of fate in which Decoration Day happened to fall in the middle of the trial. Now known as Memorial Day, this wasn’t legislated to occur on Mondays as is the case today. Tichelaar walks us through Decoration Day events, including speeches celebrating the veteran survivors of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, of which T.R. was perhaps its most famous veteran. Roosevelt addresses the veterans, including one who happened to be an ancestor of the author himself!
Throughout the book, it touches on authentic speeches, news articles, editorials, photos, and even advertisements of the day, many of which are reproduced in full, a highly unusual touch for a historical novel. It certainly puts you in the picture and gives but a small glimpse of the meticulous research Tichelaar has employed. For example, Marquette’s famed Opera House is the scene of a musical farce, The Prince of Pilsner, which Matthew and his sister attend. The comic opera is nothing special, revolving around the common trope of mistaken identity, but having a beer baron as its protagonist produces some odd resonances with the theme of T.R. as a responsible drinker and the contrast of Roger, the incorrigible alcoholic.
Most of all, the book is a love letter to the people who made Marquette what it is today. The writer clearly takes joy in the paradoxical position of Marquette in its dual roles as both a frontier town and a bustling metropolis of the North, due to its fortunate geography as a lake port and its proximity to a bounty of natural resources. I recommend When Teddy Came to Town for anyone who’d like to learn a bit about the rich cultural history of Marquette through a clever mix of history and fiction.
TITLE: When Teddy Came to Town
AUTHOR: Tyler R. Tichelaar
PUBLISHER: Marquette Fiction