I have small-town envy.
I wouldn't be caught dead living too far from good bookstores, restaurants, or movie houses. I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than grow a garden. I much prefer the anonymity of a classy hotel to the coziness of the most lauded bed-and-breakfast. And I prefer not to know my neighbors.
Still... Completely against my citified type, reading a Jon Hassler novel gives me sharp pangs of "I wish I lived there." Especially when "there" is the fictional Minnesota town of Staggerford.
THE STAGGERFORD FLOOD takes place in the small town introduced in Hassler's first novel STAGGERFORD and revisited in A GREEN JOURNEY and DEAR JAMES. In his latest novel, Hassler uses a natural disaster to strew the familiar milieu with characters that appeared in previous novels.
This novel opens a year after the flood, with elderly retired schoolteacher Agatha McGee planning a party to celebrate the anniversary of the deluge that laid waste to parts of Staggerford. Hassler then takes us back to a year earlier, when Agatha's failing health has dampened her natural bossy curiosity and left her ignorant of much going on around her.
A natural, if irascible, leader, Agatha isn't used to being out of the loop, but apathy bred from grief over the death of a dear friend is a powerful narcotic. It takes THE STAGGERFORD FLOOD literally rising around her to make Agatha shake off her gloominess and realize she's still loved and needed.
"Before the flood, Agatha didn't look well. She didn't act well. She spent whole days in her chair by the front window, brooding and watching the occasional car or pedestrian go by. The flood woke her up. The flood and her new pacemaker. The change was miraculous. She came out of the ordeal looking even smaller and more fretful than she had before, but a lot of her old energy came back, her erect posture, her strong voice, her fiery opinions."
Agatha, despite all evidence to the contrary, doesn't really believe in the flood, but its possibility enlivens her. After an impromptu visit from her new priest, Father Healy (who appeared in NORTH OF HOPE), Agatha takes her taciturn live-in nephew, Fred, and strikes out to visit friends before the water rises, to get provisions, and to take issue with the local newspaper editor who has reported her ill health to all of Staggerford. One by one, friends, neighbors, and even former students show up on Agatha's doorstep. Seven women spend four nights together waiting out the flood that cuts them off from the rest of Staggerford. While they wait, these women of disparate ages and personalities bicker and squabble and sometimes knock-down all-out fight, but they also talk and listen and begin to appreciate what it means to be a neighbor, a friend, a member of a small-town community.
If you're looking for a story bursting at the seams with mayhem, murderous plots, and sweat-oiled heroes who save the world, this isn't the book for you. If, however, you appreciate the well-told slice-of-life tale, if you long for the slowed down pace of small-town life, if you take solace in the universality of human frailty and find wonder in the particularity of human strength, then THE STAGGERFORD FLOOD is for you.
Reviewed by Jami Edwards on January 23, 2011