Agatha's Ashes

W. H. Auden once remarked that readers want their favorite novelists to be faithful to them, while remaining free themselves to be as unfaithful as they please. Jon Hassler’s latest book, The New Woman, may at first glance seem unfaithful to readers devoted to his four previous novels of life in bucolic Staggerford, the fictional Minnesota town he began chronicling almost thirty years ago. In The New Woman Hassler trains his comic and ironic Midwestern vision-more generous and humane than Sinclair Lewis’s, less macabre than Sherwood Anderson’s-on the problems of the senior citizen. The novel follows Hassler’s familiar heroine, retired Staggerford teacher Agatha McGee, through a series of adventures in and around Sunset Senior Apartments, where at age eighty-seven Agatha has moved, fearing herself too old to live alone. Seeing her at Sunset, readers may ask: whatever happened to the feisty and opinionated Agatha we knew from the prior books? And what kind of compelling story will the novelist find in the everyday events of a retirement community?

Like many a Hassler novel, The New Woman begins with a mystery. Agatha cannot find a valuable gold brooch, a gift from her parents and memento of her 1927 high school graduation. She suspects another Sunset tenant of stealing it, and soon focuses on John Beezer, a retired farmer with a surly disposition and bad table manners. With other residents fearing for their possessions, Agatha’s best friend, Lillian Kite, proposes that all entrust their valuables to a shoebox. To foil any would-be thief, the shoebox is passed randomly from one resident’s room to another’s. Before long it is Agatha’s turn to safeguard this so-called “MX Shoebox” and its eclectic treasures, including a charm bracelet, a papal medal, a shaving brush, and-Lillian’s contribution-a partial roll of Tums. Of course, the shoebox eventually gets mislaid, precipitating a crisis at Sunset. Agatha takes action. At eighty-seven, she remains a mover and a shaker; and since she taught most of Staggerford’s leading officials over the decades, she is able to call on the assistance of the mayor, the chief of police, the town’s principal lawyer, and even the funeral director.

Into these comic hijinks Hassler brings familiar faces, touching base with previous Staggerford novels and updating the fates of their characters. One is Lee Ann Raft, daughter of one of Hassler’s most memorable “hardscrabble girls” and the live-in girlfriend of Agatha’s nephew, Frederick. When Lee Ann leaves Frederick for John Beezer’s volatile son, Ernie, Agatha fears for her nephew’s mental health, and forms a support group to help him. The first meeting garners a small handful of the bereaved and troubled, including a mysterious and unkempt woman in a black shawl, who discloses she has spent thirty-five years in a mental hospital, and strafes the others around the table with an aggressive and intimidating glare.

The mystery woman, as it turns out, is Corinne Bingham, whose presence haunted Hassler’s first novel, Staggerford. Corinne is the sister of John Beezer, and for the rest of the novel Agatha struggles with the feelings Corinne Bingham has aroused in her. She even visits her parish priest, Fr. Frank Healy, asking how to deal with ideas she considers sinful. Should she forgive Corinne Bingham for a terrible crime committed many years ago? This is a fundamental moral and religious question, and Hassler handles its implications deftly. Religion has become more a background than foreground element in his fiction since North of Hope (1990), in some ways his best and most Catholic novel. Yet Hassler has asserted that Catholicism gives a sense of order and perspective to the world; and without that sense of order, even The New Woman might seem on the verge of spinning off into a vertiginous satire of despair.

In the end, The New Woman does not prove its author unfaithful to his readers after all. As usual, Hassler’s plot flows as inconspicuously as the Badbattle River through Staggerford. The author continues to manipulate time sequence expressively, and point of view in his hands remains as fluid and opportunistic as ever-now in one character, now in another, flowing to wherever the most humor or the most unusual insight may be found. And the problems of the Sunset residents turn out to be the perennial themes of a Hassler novel-muted, perhaps, into a minor key by the age of his dramatis personae.

The novel’s dust jacket refers to its characters as a “charming crew of eccentrics.” The hint of sentimentality points up a risk inherent in Hassler’s way of creating fiction, presiding over a stable of characters he recurs to again and again. The novelist has said he finds it easier to work with characters he knows already; one temptation in doing so can be to “shorthand” the character or-worse-diminish a really strong character’s importance. This happened to Fr. Frank Healy, protagonist of North of Hope, in The Staggerford Flood, and it happens again in The New Woman. It’s not that Hassler doesn’t care about these characters. It’s just when they reappear in supporting roles, he doesn’t spend the time he did when they were the protagonists.

This problem notwithstanding, there is finally something weightier than charming eccentricity to Jon Hassler’s portrayal of his “crew.” As Agatha comes to know more of her fellow residents, she learns of the trials and disappointments associated with raising children, the consequences of bad decisions, broken marriages, drug addiction, and abandoned children. And death, it seems, is everywhere. In almost all the characters of The New Woman, “eccentric” or not, the reader can see a familiar image of what it is like to grow old. What kind of story can Jon Hassler discover in a retirement home? The same kind of compelling tale he has been telling for more than thirty years: an understated story full of laughter and sorrow; “sentiment and satire;” a story-really several stories-that reminds us, painfully, of our own mortality.

Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: 
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Ed Block is professor of English at Marquette University, and editor of Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature.

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