LAKE PLACID isn’t like other towns. What other place has hosted two Winter Olympics, after all? But in other ways, it’s pretty much the same: people are born and die, try to make a living through good times and bad, laugh, and cry.
Native daughter Barbara Tyrell Kelly captures this dichotomy—the world-famous resort versus the village where generations of “just plain folks” grew up—in her entertaining collection of short essays Growing Up in Lake Placid.
This combination of memoir and local history collects columns that Kelly wrote for the Lake Placid News from 2006 to 2011. She’d previously contributed articles on the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, prompting then-Editor Ed Forbes to suggest a weekly column focusing on Lake Placid when she was growing up during the Great Depression and World War II.
Her first column, “A Fish Story,” set the standard. She recounts how her mother, a feisty, independent woman who delayed her honeymoon to go hunting, concealed an out-of-season, equally feisty trout from a game protector. The story is infused with the humor that characterizes Kelly’s essays, helping make them so appealing.
In other essays, Kelly writes about bathtub gin, ten-cent movies, ski jumping during the school lunch hour, bartering for groceries, taffy pulls, and cranky Model T’s, among other things we will never see again. Among the nuggets of Lake Placid history that emerge is that during World War II the town harbored many refugees from mountainous regions in Europe, perhaps seeking safety in a place that looked like home. Kelly befriended one couple whose daughter had been an opera star in Vienna.
Readers will get more out of this book if they can keep straight some of the personalities involved, particularly Kelly’s relatives. In her deft portrayals of their blessings, curses, and quirks, we come to know and appreciate them. She describes how her parents reveled in practical jokes played on the pompous guests at a lodge where they worked. The gags included a collapsing outhouse and a telephone that squirted water.
Frank, down-to-earth, and honest, the author confronts controversial topics such as sex education (generally extracurricular) and racial prejudice. Yet, while she mentions the Lake Placid Club several times, she does not allude to its history of antisemitism, which must have been widely known.
There is some repetition in the book, but that can be excused in a gathering-up of essays written over a half-dozen years. And the absence of a proofreader is evident. Despite these shortcomings, the book is an enjoyable read, forcing us to wonder, as Kelly does, if we are really better off than folks were in “the old days.” ■