Hassler, Jon. Staggerford.

NY: Atheneum, 1977.

Miles Pruitt is a native and lifelong resident of the small, ordinary town of Staggerford, Minnesota, somewhere on the highway between Fargo and Duluth. At thirty-five, he’s been teaching Senior English for twelve years at the same high school he himself graduated from — which means he has been depending on the school’s basement cafeteria for hot lunches for more than half his life.

He’s a thoughtful, inoffensive sort, single (though he tends to squire Imogene Kite, the excessively homely, even turkey-like, town librarian, to parties and football games, simply from habit), tending to portliness, and one of the few people who can make his landlady, Agatha McGee, smile. Miss McGee is also a teacher, having steered the Sixth Grade at St. Isidore’s Catholic School for more than forty years — which means a large proportion of Staggerford’s adults have passed through her hands, and they’ve never forgotten the experience. And the high point of her life (so far) was meeting poet Joyce Kilmer when she was six.

The story starts on the last Friday in October and follows Miles through the next ten days, with papers to be graded, and a faculty Halloween party to attend, and students frightened of the looming adult world to be counseled. The Superintendent of Education sits and stares out the window because he’s afraid of a heart attack and he knows ambitious, duplicitous high school Principal Workman wants his job. The coach is agonizing over the tie game against the top football team in the area and is plotting the season’s campaign for the wrestling team. And the Sandhill Chippewas are still routinely abandoning their education on their sixteenth birthdays. And the Bonewoman is making the rounds of back doors, and shooting rats. And other things. And Miles has kissed Imogene, to the startlement of both, and doesn’t quite know why. Especially since he’s been silently in love with the Principal’s wife since she arrived in town.

And then things go slightly sideways when an Indian kid pulls a knife on the Senior class troublemaker for messing with his sister and gets himself beaten to a pulp. The Indians don’t like that. The state police get involved — and the National Guard. And Miles finds himself dragooned into things he’d rather not have anything to do with — but he’s dutiful and does as he’s asked. Unfortunately for him.

This was Hassler’s first novel, and considering when it was written, it invites comparison with his fellow Minnesotan, Garrison Keillor. And I think that’s a compliment to both gentlemen. Hassler displays a similarly sly, understated humor and creates the same sort of unique, slightly off-the-wall characters. “Ordinary people,” but not really. The residents of Staggerford probably have relatives in Lake Wobegon. Miss McGee, especially, who starts out as sort of the town’s cliché Little Old Lady, becomes much more than that by the end of the book. And Wayne Workman, who starts out as an educational authority figure, becomes much, much less. There are more books about Staggerford (and elsewhere) and I’ll be hunting them up.

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Published in: on 23 April 2016 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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