When We Don't Quite Fit

Minnesota writer Jon Hassler's novels teem with memorable characters and stories. He fills them with surprising moments of grace, humor, and generosity. "I've been told that I make good people interesting," Hassler says of his work.

He does. A former small-town high school teacher and college English professor, Hassler writes of teachers and students, small towns and faculty lounges with some authority.

Hassler has written eight books for adults. They share a fictional geography—the Badbattle River runs through them all. And they share a common thematic landscape as well, exploring questions of community and vocation. His stories are about people who don't quite fit where they are, discovering where they belong.

Take Simon Shea. As Simon's Night opens, he has checked himself into the Norman Home, a rest home with a reputation for humane treatment of the elderly ("which is to say," as Simon summarizes it, "that we are neither encouraged to become senile nor encouraged not to.") He had retired to his remote cabin on the banks of the Badbattle after a distinguished career teaching English at Rookery State College, but moved to the Norman when he detected what he took to be the first signs of mental disintegration.

Simon tries to accommodate himself to a life spent rehashing the past over cookies with his fellow inmates. But it's obvious he doesn't belong in a nursing home. He can't avoid injecting life into the moribund Norman, sometimes with disastrous (and comic) consequences. After reflecting on the misadventures of one particularly difficult day, Simon concludes his nightly prayer:

It's old business, isn't it, Lord? It's futile and old and boring in your ear. What a lot of old business you must have to listen to when night falls on the world and the human race looks back on its mistakes. The drone of empty memories. Well, I know what you must be going through, Lord; I have been taking my meals in the dining room of the Norman Home.

Yes, Simon prays. As with many of Hassler's characters, faith lies at the heart of his identity. But Simon's Night is not a "religious novel." Conversations with God are simply a natural part of Simon's world. Faith is such an accepted part of his interior life that the question of "where he belongs" is actually one of vocation.

THAT'S also the case with Agatha McGee, who anchors Hassler's trilogy about the town of Staggerford. Agatha is a spinster sixth-grade teacher who feels the modern world attacking her whole way of life. She still says Mass in Latin under her breath, even though the church has long since moved to English. Her "please call me by my first name" bishop plans to close down St. Isidore's, the school to which she's devoted 40-plus years of her life. And contemporary America is threatening to overwhelm the Catholic culture she's labored to pass on to her students. ("The dark ages are beginning all over again," she says when we first meet her.)

Having no soul-mates in Staggerford, Agatha begins to correspond with James O'Hannon, an Irishman with similar views on church and culture. In A Green Journey, Agatha takes her first overseas trip, to visit James in Ballybegs, County Kildare. The book becomes both a delightful travel book and an exploration of belonging, whether to a church, a small Minnesota town, or an Irish village. It is also about finding a vocation, a central issue for Agatha as she faces retirement after a lifetime of teaching.

At the end of her gut-wrenching, soul-finding trip, Agatha discovers her path. She will return to Staggerford to fight for St. Isidore's survival: "Once life has washed you over in tides of joy and anguish, how could you choose to be high and dry? Life was crushing as well as uplifting, but it made no sense to call it quits if the alternative was knitting your days away...."

Simon, Agatha, and many other Hassler characters might seem odd choices to center modern novels around. It's particularly refreshing to see older people taken seriously in our Cindy Crawford culture. But Hassler treats his characters so fairly, so generously, that they easily gain and hold our sympathy.

The spirit of generosity in Hassler's works allows us to take his people on their own terms. In North of Hope, young seminarian Frank Healy must decide between the celibate priesthood and marriage to the woman of his dreams. It is surely a testament to how fairly Hassler treats his characters that we are at least as likely to root for celibacy as for the standard route to "happily ever after."

If you haven't read any of Hassler's works, start with the Staggerford series. It begins with Staggerford, one of Hassler's funniest and most memorable novels. A Green Journey will have you packing your bags for Ireland and Dear James will have you repacking them for Tuscany.

Then pick up one of his other books for the flight over.

PATRICIA HORN, a former Sojourners intern, and MARK PREECE, the spouse of a former intern, live in south Florida. Pat is a journalist and Mark is a free-lance writer.

Books by Jon Hassler: Dear James (1993); Grand Opening (1987); A Green Journey (1985); The Love Hunter (1981); North of Hope (1990); Rookery Blues (1995); Simon's Night (1979); Staggerford (1977). To visit Hassler's web site (yes, he does have one), go to: http://wwwl.minn.net/~thibault/index.htm..

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"When We Don't Quite Fit"
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