A Note About Squabble of the Titans, the Edwardian Era & Epistolary Writing

Squabble of the Titans, Recollections of Roosevelt and His Rival’s Hunt for Bigfoot in the Olympic Rainforest is a historical epistolary novel that takes place between 1909–1911 in the area of Washington State we now know as Olympic National Park. The story centers on the rivalry between ex-President of the United States (Colonel) Theodore Roosevelt and a utopian British doctor named Horace S. Browntrout. They have both been lured to the wild, temperate Olympic Rainforest by scant but tantalizing evidence of the “Saysquack” — also known as Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Bigfoot is referred to as “Saysquack” throughout the novel because of a misunderstanding about the word for Bigfoot in the language of the local people, the fictitious Quill-in-i-klat.

In the Edwardian period, the world was in the midst of the so-called “Heroic Age” of Polar exploration that would end when the North and South poles were reached. There was a sense that much of the Earth was mapped and explored, with little left to be conquered. It is in this cultural milieu that Dr. Browntrout and Theodore Roosevelt scramble to be the first the “discover” the Saysquack (or Bigfoot). Both Roosevelt and Browntrout dream of making a name for themselves in the scientific community, by being heralded as experts in a new field, in-demand lecturers and best-selling authors — who doesn’t dream of that? But there end the similarities.

In their attempts to “discover” the Saysquack, Theodore Roosevelt and Horace S. Browntrout represent different aspects of colonization. Roosevelt — being an avid big game hunter and conservationist — is obsessed with killing, eating and stuffing the Saysquack to preserve as museum specimens. He also wants to build a road through the middle of the Olympic Rainforest. Browntrout, on the other hand, wants to Christianize and civilize the Saysquack in accord with late Victorian social standards. He also dreams of replacing the burgeoning technology of automobiles with bicycle-riding, and fantasizes about teaching the Saysquack to ride bicycles, take tea, and meet the other expectations of a proper English gentleman. The irony of “discovering” a phenomenon well known to the local people is explored through ample cultural misunderstandings, and through arrogant proclamations, the granting of “naming rights,” and other examples where the hubris of the era is on full display.

Caught in the middle of Roosevelt and Browntrout’s opposing schemes to impose their will on the wilderness is Ejilikut, a member of the fictitious Quill-in-i-klat. He begins the story as Browntrout’s assistant, but he sees himself more as a glorified babysitter. His people have sent him there to keep an eye on Browntrout to make sure he does no harm to them or to the forest. He goes because he has lost a bet. Later on, after tiring of Browntrout’s company, Ejilikut “switches sides” and becomes the guide of the Roosevelt expedition. Ejilikut’s story is told through the use of translated academic oral history monographs, as spoken to Dr. Alfred Kroeber who, like Roosevelt, is inspired, by a living historical figure. Ejilikut and his people, on the other hand, are entirely a product of my imagination. Ejilikut’s narratives always end with the words, “I Ejilikut, saw these things and they are true.” With a macro perspective of Both Roosevelt and Browntrout, Ejilikut functions as a kind of meta-narrator with unassailable veracity. However, the readers’ faith in that veracity is tested at numerous junctures. Far from being merely an impartial eye that sees all, Ejilikut has his own agenda that intersects with Roosevelt’s and especially Browntrout’s in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.

The bulk of the action takes place between 1909–1911, when Browntrout and Roosevelt set forth independently on their expeditions, however the novel starts in the distant past and ends in the distant future, covering a sweep of time that ends up spanning well over a century. During that time, we bear witness to the childhood experiences — both traumatic and ridiculous — that inspire a future lifetime of Saysquack-seeking in Roosevelt and Browntrout. In the final chapters of the book, readers are introduced to correspondence and speeches from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and even from rangers leading tours of the — by then — almost century-old Theodore Roosevelt Saysquack Olympic National Park. In all, the musings of four different U.S. Presidents are brought to bear on “the Saysquack Question” and the thoughts of many other policymakers are included as well.

In addition to colonization, the theme of manliness and duty to one’s family is everpresent throughout the book. Another similarity between Theodore Roosevelt and Horace S. Browntrout is that they have both left behind wives and children (although Roosevelt’s adult son Kermit is with him on the expedition). Browntrout’s wife Effie and his father-in-law have pleaded with him to come home and stay home after a lifetime of glory seeking and cryptid hunting around the globe, but Horace remains convinced that his and his families’ fortunes will only rise if he makes a momentous discovery. Upon returning home, both adventurers race each other to be the “first” to complete and publish books about their respective expeditions — with Horace eschewing all hygiene and even risking starvation in order to win that contest. Both men are swept up in Edwardian-era notions of masculinity and duty, as well as pride becoming entangled with duty. In both cases, letters from their wives back home represent conscience and the voice of reason.

In terms of the structure of Squabble of the Titans, it is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters, diary entries, telegrams, transcripts of speeches, lists, fake book excerpts, bibliographies, newspaper articles and academic monographs. The epistolary style (“epistle” or “missive” are other words for “letter”) is antiquated and seldom-used, in part I suspect, probably because people do not produce as much written communication between each other as they did in past times.

As a writer, I love using this style because it allows me to deploy multiple perspectives to tell a story, not only between characters, but within the same character. We all have different faces we show the world, and different subjective realities, different narrative truths, we allow to be seen at any given moment. The epistolary novel is one of psychological complexity, with each entry a different prism refracting light at a slightly different angle, and each prism refracting off of each other. For example, what Theodore Roosevelt says in his diary entries sometimes contradicts what he writes home in letters to his wife. Throughout Squabble, I’m constantly toying with the reader’s expectations in a manner that renders each character a collection of inconsistencies, contradictions, paradoxes. To me, this is how people really are, this is what makes them funny, this is the essence of what it means to be human.

One of the greatest paradoxes of Squabble of the Titans is the lengths I went to render the appearance of authenticity in a work of comic fiction. In addition to writing in the epistolary style, I wanted aesthetic, visual authenticity as well, for a totally immersive experience. Therefore, the book was written using over twenty, painstakingly chosen fonts. Each character’s handwritten letters are visually represented in the book as though a living person wrote them by hand, and the same style is used for the same character throughout the book. Various fonts were chosen for the main body of the text and for particular headings to give the book a rough-hewn, faded, aged, Edwardian feel that was simultaneously antiquated but legible. I wanted people to be able to open my book and have the same feeling as discovering a bundle of letters squirreled away in a box in their attic written by their Great Great Great Grand Mother during WWI. Of course, nothing can come close to that, but we can at least have ideals to strive for. I know I did, when I wrote Squabble of the Titans, Recollections of Roosevelt and His Rival’s Hunt for Bigfoot in the Olympic Rainforest. Now available at Amazon.

Envisioning a past that never was for the future of now. Step through a surreal portal where objective truth, imagined history and satirical fiction coexist.