'A literary ghost story'

Bohlen explores a 'naturally haunted' place in his new book

May 12, 2016

Teague Bohlen is haunted.

The writer, who says he has always loved ghost stories, had his own supernatural experience more than 30 years ago. That moment, frozen in his mind, has served as both a muse and a curse. Now it is the source material for his second novel, a “literary ghost story” that he has titled “The Normal Home.”

Teague Bohlen

Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School

Bohlen is an associate professor of creative writing at CU Denver, faculty advisor to the student newspaper, The Sentry, and fiction editor of the literary magazine, The Copper Nickel. He won the Colorado Book Award for fiction for his first novel, “The Pull of the Earth,” a story of complicated family relationships set in rural Illinois.

Now, Bohlen has returned to that same part of the Midwest—and in an inverted way to the same themes—for his second book, which is based on his memories of a crumbling state school, the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School (ISSCS). Originally built to house post-Civil War orphans, the school grew into a mini-town for children in the early 20th century. Some of the children living there were war orphans, but others were simply abandoned by their families. Located in Normal, Ill., ISSCS had more than 20 dormitories, administrative buildings, its own hospital, working farm and power plant. It also had its own graveyard.

By the 1950s, the school had transitioned into a place for “troubled youth,” a kinder, gentler alternative to prison. And then, one October weekend in 1979, the state shuttered the entire campus. A home for children that had been active for more than a century ceased to exist in the space of 48 hours, triggering a protracted legal battle that only came to an end in the mid- 1980s after a developer bought the property.

Photo from inside a children’s school dormitory will serve as cover art for Bohlen’s new book, “The Normal Home.”

The pull of ISSCS

In 1984, a 14-year-old Bohlen volunteered as a summer counselor at a day care center that had been opened in an old ISSCS building. “The best part of the job was that the counselors could roam around this deserted campus,” Bohlen said. “Even better, one of the senior counselors knew how to pick locks, so we could go into areas where no one had walked in five years.”

What they found was a school where the children had suddenly vanished. In one classroom, an assignment was still written on the blackboard, along with a list of all human diseases alphabetized from “acne” to “yellow fever.” Exploring further, Bohlen walked into a classroom and watched as a single piece of paper blew off a desk and then floated gently to the ground. For a teenage fan of ghost stories, the experience was transformative.

“I thought at the time, ‘I have to write about this and I wasn’t even a writer! I was a kid!’” Bohlen said. “It just seemed like a place that was naturally haunted.”

“People with no family legacy”

Time passed, life happened and Bohlen put the project on hold, but then in his mid-40s, he could no longer ignore that long-ago summer. “Something about the weight of that moment kept pulling me back,” he said. “It lingered in my head and made me want to write about it.”

Bohlen calls the book he is writing a “literary ghost story” in the vein of Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones,” Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and some of Edith Wharton’s short stories. Preparing to write, he followed the advice of his Illinois farmer grandfather: “Always plow your rows twice.” His thorough work ethic took him to Illinois for three research trips, supported by funding from the Office of Research Services and from the English Department. In the archives of Illinois State University, he found a half dozen dusty boxes with ISSCS ephemera, including old photos, grade reports, annual reports, newspaper clippings. He also interviewed former school teachers and residents who call themselves “homers.” The more research he did, the more his book transformed in his mind from a script for a Hollywood blockbuster to something more subtle.

“I can’t just fictionalize this book to a hugely dramatic degree,” he said. “I don’t want to just use this school for my own creative ends. I want to do right by the kids.”

Bohlen’s first book looked at family legacy and that theme persists in this new novel. “This is the flip side of legacy,” he said. “It’s about the legacy created by people who have no other family legacy to lean on.”

“Witnessing it happening”

For his students, Bohlen is a writing role model, an inspiration, a coach and a mentor. He is also living proof that a novel doesn’t come into existence by channeling some mysterious otherworldly source. He points out to his students that the book is half-finished, but the project is 75 percent of the way finished, because 25 percent of the work was research.

“Research is setting up the game board,” he said. “Once you start playing and the book is in process, half the time when I’m writing I feel like I’m just witnessing it happening.”