A return to the Minnesota hamlet Hassler invented in his much-loved debut, Staggerford (1977), brings back one of its most estimable citizens: retired schoolteacher Agatha McGee, now 80, and as upright and feisty as ever.
Admirers of Richard Russo and Garrison Keillor will feel right at home in the opening pages, which introduce several familiar primary characters and set scenes with wry and unfussy clarity (e.g., “Birds were kicking up a racket in the lime-green woods”). Hassler quickly turns things over to Agatha, who’s failing some, but energizes herself by arranging a modest party to commemorate the recent title event (more of a nuisance than a catastrophe, actually)—whose effect on Staggerfordians forced to share living space is detailed in the long central flashback. So little happens, even as the waters inconveniently rise, that most readers would probably tune out early if it weren’t for Hassler’s enviable ability to create immensely likable ordinary folks and set them at one another’s throats with polite neighborly restraint. It’s nice to meet up again with Agatha’s underachieving live-in nephew Frederick (who earns extra money by posing as an indigenous Native American for gawking tourists); her lifelong friend Lillian Kite (now a devout devourer of tabloid tales of celebrities’ misadventures); and Lillian’s irretrievably pessimistic middle-aged daughter Imogene—and to make the acquaintances of the cheerfully moribund Holisters of nearby Willoughby (whose family crisis provokes Agatha to the creation of an ingenious, guilt-producing “Big Lie”). That’s about it for plot. Still, the reader is left the considerable satisfactions of watching these dour midwesterners cope with adversity, one another, and looming mortality. And Penelope Fitzgerald is no doubt chuckling in her grave over a throwaway reference to her that stimulates Agatha’s tart observation that “The English aren’t to be trusted.”
An inessential addition to the chronicles of Staggerford, but addicts won’t want to miss it.