Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Staggerford by Jon Hassler

first edition cover

first edition cover

Jon Hassler’s books are not for everyone. They are not action packed, nor scandal ridden, they are about ordinary people and their doings in a rural Minnesota town. Sort of like Jan Karon’s Mitford or Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, only with many more eccentrics. When my local book group did one of his later novels last year, some members said that a place could not function with so many strange people. I disagreed, knowing that people are far less “normal” than others think.
Staggerford is the first of Hassler’s novels and set in the town of the same name, which includes a small college and a nearby Indian reservation. All of his books are set there and all of them have a teacher as the protagonist and other teachers as secondary characters. Miles Pruitt is an English teacher at the high school, dealing with the regrets of his own life, while trying to spare a gifted student her own. The love of his life is married to the weak and pompous principal. Miles lives with Agatha McGee, an elderly, strict teacher at the Catholic elementary school. The book covers an eventful week including Halloween and a losing football game. Things become more serious when a Chippewa student is beaten up by the school’s major delinquent, which forces a confrontation with the tribe as they seek redress. Miles moves through that crisis and another with humor and moral fortitude until the week culminates in a shocking conclusion which the reader does not see coming at all.
One of the things I like about Hassler’s books is the idea of a teacher as hero. No uniform, no badges, no weapons. A person in an unassuming job dealing with everyday problems, usually many at once and keeping to a high moral standard while being realistic about the world.
Another element I like is the way the characters interact. The friendships and antagonisms feel true to life, as do the characters themselves, who are multidimensional. There is some witty dialogue and amusing thoughts. The reader becomes quite attached to certain people and it’s pleasing to follow some of them over several books.
Staggerford is not like some small town depictions, all white picket fences and potluck church dinners. It has a layered income strata and the poverty is definitely unsentimental. The Native American reservation is described starkly and though this book was published in the late 1970’s when Indian activism was in the news, many of the issues are still present today. Which is a depressing thought, actually.
The author was a teacher at the high school and collegiate level for his entire life, so it was definitely a case of “writing what you know”. He died in 2008, but left many books to be remembered by, besides the Staggerford series, he also wrote childrens books, short stories and nonfiction reflections. So far, I’ve only read the novels; deep quiet books to savor with a drink of lemonade or hot chocolate next to you, as you ponder how similar people can be, near or far.

Atheneum 1977 341 pp. ISBN 0-689-10793-5

3 comments on “Staggerford by Jon Hassler

  1. rosyb
    February 11, 2013

    I loved this review, Jackie, and you make this sound a really interesting book that I am keen to find out more about. I might try and get hold of it. The eccentric characters and the very different world/experience to mine is particularly appealing.

  2. Hilary
    February 12, 2013

    Thank you Jackie, what an utterly alluring review! These books are so wedded to their environment that I don’t think they’ve really caught on over here, though I’ve found some on Amazon UK. I think I just have to read this – there is so much that is distinctive about it.

  3. kirstyjane
    March 11, 2013

    Like Hilary I suspect it’s all about the cultural context which, for me, is a great attraction. These sound fantastic — thank you for bringing them to our attention!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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