Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Staggerford", by Jon Hassler

The following is a book review written for

Losing. That was the melancholy strain running through dozens of papers every year. Parents lost in death and divorce, fingers lost in corn pickers, innocence lost behind barns and in back seats, brothers and uncles lost in Vietnam, friends lost in drug-induced hallucinations, and football games lost to Owl Brook and Berrington.

Thus middle-aged bachelor Miles Pruitt's impression of his hometown of Staggerford, Minnesota. Set in the 1970s, Staggerford--like most small rural towns--has its share of saints and sinners. Miles, a high school English teacher and fallen-away Catholic, is an observer. Quiet and unobtrusive, he seems content to let life trundle along in its ordinary way. But he has had his share of losses as well--most significantly, the loss of both of the women he loved and might have married, to other men. Yet while Miles shares in the vague malaise of regret infecting the town, he does not seem to have the will or direction to pursue a deeper purpose.

The novel Staggerford is a chronicle of one week of Miles's life, taking place between October 30 and November 7. Thanks to a host of colorful supporting characters and side-stories, the main plot can be difficult to trace. In that way the book marvelously resembles a detailed snapshot of small-town life, rather than a traditional novel. However, the main story can be said to center around Miles, his landlady Agatha McGee, and one of his English students, Beverly Bingham.

Agatha and Beverly are the only two characters to whom Miles means, in the words of the landlady, "a deep, abiding lot." However, they could hardly be more different. Agatha, an elderly spinster and a staunch Catholic, has taught in the town's Catholic school for over forty years. Coming from an orderly, uncompromising moral worldview, she too feels loss as she witnesses the upheaval in both the Church and the secular world. But she gets along with the steady, uncomplaining Miles (though they do have their differences--he teases her about her pre-Vatican II missal while she prays every day for his lost faith). Agatha is the very picture of discipline, loyalty to tradition, and common sense.

Beverly, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. Although one of the brightest students in Miles's English class, she carries the burden of a terrible home life, a deranged mother, and a devastating family secret. Terrified for her future, she comes to Miles more and more often for advice and support. She is attracted to his steadiness precisely because her own life is so off-kilter. Miles, meanwhile, begins to wonder if he, a middle-aged bachelor and a teacher for over a decade, is actually falling in love with this 18-year-old girl. This new relationship sets off old memories of his previous failed romances.

While Miles struggles with past and present loves and Beverly endures her broken family, Agatha grapples to understand the purpose of evil in the world. In a central passage of the novel, she attempts to draw an analogy between the moral order and a bed of ferns in her garden:

"So what I was thinking, Miles, was that maybe there is a similar process going on in human affairs. If you let sunshine stand for the goodness of the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something? To bring something to maturity, like those ferns? Does God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is? Is there sprouting up somewhere a beautiful fern, as it were, composed of goodness and sin?"

Although this analogy does not put Agatha's mind entirely to rest, it does reveal her deep trust in Providence. Throughout the rest of the book, goodness and evil mingle, eventually climaxing in a great good--a healing relationship between the motherly Agatha and the desperate Beverly. However, it will take a tragedy to accomplish it.

These hints at Providence, along with Agatha's moral compass, provide a quietly Catholic backdrop to a very real story. With gentle soberness and humor, Jon Hassler also brings to life a medley of supporting characters--a female librarian obsessed with facts, an ambitious but nervous principle, a superintendent with a phobia of death, and many more. Each brings a mingling of good and evil to the landscape of Staggerford.

Overall, Staggerford is a comfortable, easy read, with a memorable cast of characters and a poignant ending. Hassler does not preach Catholicism with this story. Instead, he uses it to gently illuminate his characters' actions, in a quiet attempt to make order of our small, sometimes messy, ordinary lives.