The book was released not long after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the last standing structures of Arto Monaco's Land of Makebelieve. The pages of Scholl's poetry collection include images of the theme park, and one of the narrative's characters, Art Mastro, is based in large part on Monaco himself.
Chris Morris caught up with Scholl to tour what remains of Monaco's fantasy world and talk about how it inspires her as a poet and artist.
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It’s a cold, damp day and Caitlin Scholl is carefully navigating the piles of debris along the shores of the East Branch of the AuSable River in Upper Jay. She stops occasionally to inspect stacks of broken tree limbs, some twisted with pieces of rusted metal and old tires. She smiles as she bends down to pull something from the muck at the river’s edge.
“That is from a turret on the castle, sunken in the edge of the river,” Scholl said. “I think this is from Irene, because the castle was still standing prior.” As Scholl continues to wander the property, she finds other lost Makebelieve artifacts: siding from a building, an axel from a wagon and a five-of-hearts playing card with hands and feet.
“Make believe is a lot of different things,” she said. “At its most simple level, it’s what people do to make their world a little bit brighter and more beautiful. And I think that’s something that everyone can relate to, something everyone does.”
Scholl’s book is billed as contemporary poetry, but its pages feel more like a scrapbook or a personal diary. At times, the dialogue is formatted like the rough draft of a screenplay. There are handwritten notes and letters that give it a scrapbook feel, as well as drawings, sketches, and photographs, many of which depict Monaco’s Land of Makebelieve during its heyday.
“I think of it more like a patchwork quilt, actually,” Scholl said. “And it’s a collage. And it involved research into this place, but it also was just my experience of living. I was at a point in my life where I was really thinking about the idea of make believe and stories and worlds that we all create for ourselves and why we do it. This was a really profound metaphor for me, having spent a big chunk of my childhood in Upper Jay.”
Scholl says at its core, her book is about human desire and the urge to create worlds, both imagined and physical. As a work of historical fiction, the narrative is a fictionalized account of Monaco’s life, although her character’s name is Art Mastro. His story is told by a fictional narrator named Lilac Snitloch.
Monaco’s real Land of Makebelieve was one of the first children’s amusement parks built in the U.S. In an interview with Monaco that aired on North Country Public Radio in 2002, he said, “We had a burgomeister’s house, and a mayor’s house, and a school and a church. And what they do is they go in there and they shoot that village up. This is out in the desert, out in California.”
In the 1950s, Monaco built theme parks across the North Country, from Lake George to Wilmington to Old Forge. Most are gone now, and the Land of Makebelieve was plagued throughout its history by the AuSable River’s floods.
“And I built three castles: one out in Buffalo, and built another castle down near Lake George, the Great Escape, and one here at Land of Makebelieve, of course it was destroyed since the flood,” Monaco said. That flood, in the 1970s, closed the Land of Makebelieve for good. Monaco himself passed away in 2003.
"We are next to the AuSable river, on sort of very muddy ground. It looks like it's been bulldozed in the past year, and I'm sure it has because there's piles of debris everywhere," said Scholl. She never saw the Land of Makebelieve when it was still operating. She says the park was in ruin for her entire life, although parts of it remained.
“So it was really haunting for me, growing up, to sort of look at the remnants and artifacts of what was, to me as a little girl, probably the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” she said. “And the most mysterious and wonderful thing. And the fact that it wasn’t alive at that point, there’s this feeling of haunted-ness. The place where children used to play and run and laugh, and it’s just sort of looming there.”
The book chronicles Mastro’s life as he grows up and watches his friends pursue careers in tourism, business and forestry. Mastro is persistently haunted by a character called the Shadowman, a muse of sorts that pushes him to become an artist.
When Tropical Storm Irene struck on Aug. 28, 2011, Scholl was still writing Makebelieve. In the book, Irene is included in an epilogue of sorts: The narrator, Lilac, is at a party in Keene as the storm moves through and doesn’t realize what’s happening. “In the morning, [she] goes out to see the horrendous wreckage, and comes over here to check on her grandparents place and look at the Land of Makebelieve, and it’s gone,” Scholl said. “For her, there’s this sort of full circle sort of thing. There’s an irony that this make-believe place now really is make believe.”
Scholl says it was somewhat surreal to put so much time into writing about a place and have it vanish before the book came to fruition. But in a sense, that’s what the book is about. “Obviously it doesn’t need to be here to have impacted people and continue to impact people,” she said.