by Jon Hassler
Ballantine Books 1993
Young women who recognized themselves in the brainy Hermione Granger may also see themselves – or at least themselves at 70 – in the character of Agatha McGee.
Agatha is a perfectionist; she has extremely high expectations of others, especially of the clergy and her sixth grade students, but even more so of herself. She lives in a somewhat stultifying small town where few, if any, share her life of the mind. Agatha’s oldest and closest friend, Lillian Kite, is a naïve, simple woman who enjoys knitting and watching her “stories” on TV. Lillian’s daughter, Imogene is one of the few people in town who can match Agatha’s intellect. Imogene is also Agatha’s nemesis, and she is one of the funniest and best drawn, if least flattering, librarian characters in literature. But for all her high standards, Agatha is more compassionate than Imogene and takes in lost souls for those high standards include tempering justice with mercy.
But now at 70 Agatha finds herself in a painful confusion of identity similar to adolescence. She has been forced into retirement by the closing of the parish school where she has spent most of her life – first as student, then as sixth grade teacher and finally as principal.
And Agatha at 70 is in love for the first time. As if this is not complicated enough for the staunch Catholic she is, she finds herself in love with a priest. But Agatha is no Hester Prynne and gives in to no forbidden romance. Part of Hassler’s genius is his ability to dramatize how people endeavor to love in situations when complete intimacy, in marriage and/or sexual relations, is forbidden by circumstance, especially when the circumstances are created by one’s own most deeply held principles.
Agatha tries to escape her difficulties on a pilgrimage to Italy and to come to terms with her relationships and herself. However, she left Staggerford the most respected woman in town and, thanks to Imogene’s manipulations, returns to find herself the most vilified.
Dear James is actually the third book that Hassler writes about the town of Staggerford. Agatha played a minor role in the first novel but soon took over Hassler’s consciousness and became the main character of the second. Dear James completes the drama of the second novel, A Green Journey, and here I have given away some of that book’s plot for which I apologize. But I read Dear James first of all three, and it in no way harmed my appreciation of the earlier books. Hassler’s drama does not rely on the stunning revelation of a mystery.
Hassler’s novels are quiet books. They are stories of ordinary people, but much like Jane Austen, he tells these stories with sharp observations of the foibles of human character. Also like Austen, letters often play a significant role in creating plot and revealing character. His books, especially those of the Staggerford saga, mainly take place in small towns in Minnesota and strongly resemble the fiction of Garrison Keillor in their gentle and humorous portrayal of the wacky characters of small towns. Hassler also moves quickly from humor to pathos and back to humor as Keillor does. Hassler emphasizes character more than plot, and as place is central to the story, the town itself becomes part of the characters.
Dear James is in processing at Doherty Library (so you can put a hold on it), but you may find a copy at the local public libraries.
Jon Hassler’s official website – not updated very frequently but has some interesting information