Jon Hassler published his first Staggerford novel in 1977. That
event set the scene for the subsequent books that tell the stories
of the events that touched the lives of its inhabitants. When asked
in an interview about his choice of locale he said, "I've been
rooted in northern Minnesota all my life; I've never moved."
Clearly this is his "place" and that is where he set his latest
novel, THE NEW WOMAN.
THE NEW WOMAN is the story of Agatha McGee, an octogenarian who
taught sixth grade for almost 50 years in Staggerford. At 87 her
health is good and her mental faculties are as sharp as they were
when she was a much younger woman. She still lives in the house she
grew up in, and until recently she managed very well. "She has
carried around the image of Staggerford as a bucolic, serene little
hamlet, and she was under the false impression that she was still
acquainted with all its citizens, as she had been in her teaching
days." For years she had based that view on what she was able to
see from her windows in "her house on River Street."
We meet her three days after she's moved into the Sunset Senior
Apartments. And as she gazes from the window of her new home she
stares at the Kmart parking lot across the street. She is amazed at
the number of cars coming and going. "…she realized that
there were hundreds of people living in this town whom she didn't
know." When her lifelong friend Lillian, also a resident of the
building, pays a call, Agatha thinks, "Oh, dear, this move was
certainly a mistake." She "had feared that living here would
compromise her independence."
But in Hassler's imaginary Staggerford, things don't always turn
out as expected, and as the story unfolds Agatha moves back and
forth from the present to her past. And these journeys give the
richness and texture of what otherwise could have been a novella
without much punch. When one considers Hassler's words in another
interview, a real connection is made between the writer and his
theme and the reader and his message: "I spent seven years visiting
my mother in a similar place in a small town in Minnesota," Hassler
recalls. "I'd go up there once a week and we'd have our peach
delight and our coffee. I got to know these people pretty well. I
just felt so at home with them that I wanted to write about them.
People get outspoken at that age, and I like that. I just love
people talking at odds, going off in their own directions." Add to
these flights of verbal disconnects the eccentricities of each
member, and sparks fly.
Over the course of a few weeks Agatha slowly works her magic and
gains the respect of her fellow residents, realizing that since she
retired what she missed most was being taken seriously. She really
is the "grand old lady" of the town, and when she starts reaching
out to her former students who are now the movers and shakers of
Staggerford, she realizes that she was never forgotten.
Hassler stages several scenes in which one or more of the
characters experience an epiphany. Agatha touches people who felt
neglected and ignored, which gains their everlasting loyalty. They
come to honor her for who she is and was, and how she affected
At some points the plot seems to be on the verge of unraveling, but
Hassler manages to pull the loose ends together. Without being
sentimental, melodramatic or gloomy, he writes in a conversational
style that is charming and real. He doesn't romanticize getting old
and being alone or having to leave the comfort and security of
one's home. He doesn't sugarcoat the difficulties inherent in
meeting new people under conditions that one didn't necessarily
choose. Yet he manages to give the reader an honest portrayal of
his characters and his message.
Agatha is a strong-willed, pious woman who is as devoted to her
church as she is to doing good and living a charitable life ---
despite the dark days. The supporting cast knows that bad things
happen. All of them have experienced different kinds of hard times.
Of this Hassler has said in the past: "I'm not sure that the
optimism and the success of my characters in overcoming darkness is
really connected to my religion. I think it's connected to a belief
I have in the ongoing quality of life. People survive and are
stronger for their suffering. It's just the feeling I have about
Those notions are the major thread in THE NEW WOMAN. Agatha is
surprised and delighted when she finds her niche as the leader of a
support group that over 10 months grows so large that the meetings
are held in the high school gym. At the end of a long meeting, when
Agatha is exhausted, she says: "I believe 'range of motion' applies
to our psyches as well as our bodies. If we shut down parts of our
thinking, we'll never get them back, and so you might say these
[meetings] are my psychological therapy."
Jon Hassler infuses today's literary scene with a book that
reflects small-town style, USA. He clearly sees teachers as heroes,
friendship as a special gift, optimism as the anecdote to the
blues, and aging as an opportunity to continue to grow as an
individual. We are never too old to learn --- and if someone is
willing to teach, all of us benefit.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 12, 2011
The New Woman: A Staggerford Novel