The National Catholic Review
Ed Block

For those familiar with the novels of Jon Hassler, coming to his newest novel, The Staggerford Flood, will be a series of surprise reunions. Which is, perhaps, part of his purpose. For The Staggerford Flood is also a series of surprise reunions for the novel’s chief character, Agatha McGee, the now 80-year-old former school teacher and principal most beloved by readers of Hassler’s work. Framed by two chapters set a year apart, the bulk of the novel concerns a week during which Agatha’s stately home, perched high above the Badbattle River, becomes a literal island when the river overflows in the worst spring flood in a century.

In the first chapter we meet Janet Meers as she prepares to help her friend Agatha get out invitations to a dinner party celebrating the one-year anniversary of the flood. Janet (née Raft) made her debut as a major supporting character in Hassler’s A Green Journey. Despite a husband and two nearly grown children, the center of Janet’s life is still her friendship with Agatha. The week of the flood opens with Agatha feeling she is losing her grip, and with an even bigger surprise for readers familiar with Hassler’s oeuvre. Father Frank Healy, the protagonist of Hassler’s best novel, North of Hope, and now Agatha’s pastor, arrives at Agatha’s door two days early for his weekly visit to shut-ins. He comes on Thursdayinstead of his regular Saturdaywith news of rising water. Another surprise visit puzzles Agatha further, when a local radio talk show hosta character from Hassler’s two most recent novelsasks about her health. After Lolly Edwards leaves, Agatha’s nephew, Frederick Lopat, confirms that the recent issue of The Staggerford Weekly is to blame. Just above the obituaries a headline reads, Esteemed Citizen in Declining Health. When Agatha reads this, she says, I need to be seen out and about.

Agatha goes downtown to find out who put the story in the paper. She also stops to stock up on groceries for the flood, but she has brought the wrong list. As Agatha fumes at this evidence of her lazy mind, the checkout girl asks, The paper says you been sick. Are you okay again now? Agatha replies, Except for spells of dementia. This is classic Agatha, and a reminder that Hassler calls timing a key to writing humor. Back home, another phone call about her health makes Agatha impulsively decide to visit friends in the nearby town of Willoughby, where Frederick is a part-time mail carrier. When Agatha returns home from the visit, news of a sudden death adds further complexity to the unfolding story. As the flood rises, neighbors, friends and new acquaintances arrive at Agatha’s, where they remain when the Badbattle cuts them off from escape. In time, Agatha has to find beds for eight women. Besides Agatha, they include Calista Holister, Janet and her daughter Sara Meers, and Agatha’s neighbors, Lillian and Imogene Kite, as well as the new lady undertaker, Linda Schwartzman, and another character from an earlier novel, Beverly Bingham Cooper.

Mr. Hassler handles all this without rusha contrast to the way news of the flood affects the citizens. As always, Mr. Hassler’s style is spare and understated. His running commentary on such things as teenagers’ language, tabloid newspapers, small-town gossip and growing old make for much of the subtle but gently satiric humor. But there is an even stronger element of minimalism at work in this, one of the author’s shortest novels. For instance, he is more sparing of his descriptions of external surroundings, concentrating instead on characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. At one point Agatha observes the changes in her personality that have come with age. You know, the older I get, the fewer things interest me in life.... I hardly ever check a book out of the library anymore. Calista Holister concurs. Like you, Agatha, I got that way after I quit reading, only I quit reading long before you did.... I quit reading the day I graduated from high school. Again, Hassler’s subtle humor balances Agatha’s potentially somber reflections.

The novel’s major crisis occurs when Agatha decides to save the town of Willoughby and those whose livelihood depends on it. To accomplish this, she tells the second lie of her life (the first about not regretting remaining singlehad occurred just a short time before). For the rest of the novel, Agatha’s recollection of the two lies, and the consequences of the second, cause her feelings of guilt. When, near the novel’s conclusion, Father Healy offers to absolve her, Agatha rejects the offer because, while contrite, she says: I don’t intend to rectify things. I intend to carry this lie to my grave.

Few readers or reviewers have noticed the archetypal dimension in a number of Mr. Hassler’s novels. His first, Staggerford, for instance, involves the resurrection of a town and some of its citizens after the death of a random victim of violence. In The Staggerford Flood the archetypal dimension is even more subtly suggested. Only careful attention reveals that the flood takes place during the last week of Lent. Of course the pervasiveness of water is a further clue to a possible ethic pattern.

It is perhaps only on reflection that we see how the surprising death early in the novel effects a kind of resurrection for several of the novel’s characters. The critic R. W. B. Lewis observes that when modern fiction seeks to be mythic, the effort is often artistically redeemed by a full awareness of the grotesque disproportion between the model and its re-enactment. Jon Hassler has similar fun with his re-enactment of the rites of spring. Further proof of the general transformation comes when Agatha’s former houseguests receive her invitation to the one-year reunion. Most respond with pleasure and enthusiasm borne of fond memories of that new vitality they had felt the year before.

In an interview for Image magazine, Hassler observed of his childhood: I’m indebted to those first few grades in parochial school for teaching me that everything in life is connected.... I guess maybe I see life as a whole. He is not the anguished, self-criticaland often superficialpostmodern author. He sees within, and from within. And he sees the whole of life. Despite its relatively simple structure and its close attention to the seemingly insignificant details of small-town life and growing old, The Staggerford Flood offers a rare glimpse of a world that most of us could envy.

Ed Block is a professor of English at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis., and editor of Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature.