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Grand Opening recounts a year in the life of the Foster family, beginning on the day in 1944 when they uproot themselves from Minneapolis and move to the Minnesota village of Plum, where Hank and Catherine have invested their hopes and their life's savings in a grocery store, and where their son, Brendan, is about to enter the seventh grade. The fourth member of the family, Catherine's father, is eighty years old and disoriented by the move.

Actually they are all disoriented, for the four of them find this tightly knit, insular community as strange as a foreign country. In Minneapolis, where he had been unacquainted with half a million people, Brendan had never felt so lonely. Nor had Catherine foreseen the mutual suspicion that divides the Lutherans and Catholics of the village. As for Hank, he is as appalled by the filthy, impoverished condition of the store he bought sight unseen as by the automatic assumption that only his fellow Catholics will be his customers. Undaunted, the Fosters throw their energy into the grocery business, believing that the success of Hank's Market will secure them a place in the community. They soon discover, however, that their happiness will depend to a much greater extent on the friends--and enemies-- they make among the villagers.

Two of these villagers, a young man and a boy, attach themselves to the Fosters immediately upon their arrival. Both are desperately needy. Wallace Flint, their grocery clerk, is a misfit who sees in Catherine a kindred spirit. Wallace was a brilliant student in high school, but his epilepsy and his overprotective mother have kept him from going away to college, and left him moldering in the stultifying atmosphere of Plum, where his frustration threatens to explode.

The other misfit, fifteen-year-old Dodger Hicks, is the neglected son of a criminal father and a promiscuous mother. Dodger attaches himself to Brendan in school and before long becomes a member of the Foster household, arousing the hatred of Wallace Flint--who is jealous of his place in Catherine's heart--and alienating the neighbors--who consider him an irredeemable kleptomaniac.

It is Dodger Hicks who creates in Brendan, and in the novel, one of the fundamental dilemmas of human existence How much do we owe our brothers in need? Is there no limit to the sacrifice we must make for those less fortunate than ourselves? Through Brendan, the reader comes to see the heroic efforts required by the deceptively easy- sounding biblical injunction "Love one another."

As World War II rages in Europe and the Pacific, the story of the Foster family builds to its dramatic climax against the peaceful background of the Minnesota farmland. The war and the novel end on the same day.

Page One

As they followed the Mississippi out of the Twin Cities on U.S. 61, Brendan wondered why his parents and his grandfather seemed not to share his dread. Year after year he had listened apprehensively to his mother and father talk about moving to a small town and going into business for themselves, and now it was happening. Tomorrow he would begin the school year among strangers in a village he had never seen. The lawn mower was strapped to the roof of the car and his bike rode the front bumper. The moving van was some miles ahead. It was Labor Day. A light rain was falling.

His parents sat in front, his father gripping the wheel tightly, fighting the car's tendency to wobble into the left lane, and his mother reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, which she had promised to return to the city library by mail. The book was causing her to gasp repeatedly as she read the final pages. Grandfather and Brendan sat in back, separated by a pile of coats and coathangers. Brendan was twelve, born the year Roosevelt defeated Hoover; Grandfather was nearly eighty, a baby when Lincoln was shot. The car, a 1928 De Soto (black, square and noisy), was propelled quite literally by the river, for the engine leaked coolant, and every thirty miles or so Hank had to pull off the highway and divert a gallon of the Mississippi through the coils of the steaming radiator.

"Hank, look at these hills, how awful," exclaimed his mother the instant his father switched off the ignition. She had closed the book on her lap, marking her page with both thumbs, and was shrinking back from the forested bluffs rising on her right. Brendan opened his door, handed his father the pail at his feet and watched him carry it down a long path to the wide, slaty river. The path was muddy. The rain was dwindling.


Hassler started out good and keeps getting better

"Grand Opening" is a marvelous novel, so free-flowing and smoothly crafted that its impact, the lingering effect, are almost startling.

In "Grand Opening" Hassler deals with the commonplace, a working-class family exchanging Minneapolis for a small town near Rochester during World War II, buying a grocery, trying, as fair-minded newcomers, to join the community. There is a richness, a wealth of characterization and of movement, glimpses of lives that caused me to drop the book into my lap and to remember a time when I could walk the streets of my town and put a name to every house, make a guess about what was happening inside every lighted room.

There is laughter. Hassler, as usual, blends severity and humor. Catherine Foster, a decent, bright, energetic woman, defender of the weak, fiercely indignant at any occasion of injustice, is at Sunday mass.

There is Plum. I don't care whether Hassler made it up or not, I used to live in Plum. You've probably been there. This is Hassler's fifth novel in a decade. He started out good, with "Staggerford" in 1977, and he keeps getting better.
                                                                 Minneapolis Star and Tribune
                                                                               April 26, 1987
                                                                     Reviewed by Larry Batson

"Priggish Bigots -- John Hassler's Grand Opening sets a smug small town against the backdrop of war."

Grand Opening -- the tale of one urban family's adjustments to the peculiar foible of life in a small Minnesota town. Grand Opening is the story of the Fosters (Hank and Catherine, son Brendan, and grandfather Michael) and their effort to establish a grocery store in Plum. They're Catholic, and they're from Minneapolis -- facts they ignorantly assume will have little to do with the success or failure of the run-down store Hank has purchased.

Those of you who have read Jon Hassler's previous work will find much that is familiar in the new novel: the small-town setting, the richly drawn characters, the wonderfully poignant moments juxtaposed with the occasional bits of village ugliness. The narrative voice switches frequently from major to minor characters -- a device that allows a broader and deeper examination of Plum's character than the Fosters alone could have provided. This is Hassler at his best: We see the fearful loneliness and isolation in the community, the basic shyness and muted emotions -- but then, suddenly and joyfully, some connection is made, and the possibility of change emerges. From Staggerford to A Green Journey, Hassler has made a specialty of these small yet moving epiphanies. He's not given to overstatement. We're not rolled through an emotional wringer as we read his work. Yet there is an understated power to his writing.

Here we have the tale of a family's troubles in dealing with a move from the city to a small Minnesota town. Hardly a momentous crisis when you consider that it occurs in the midst of the greatest conflagration in history, but life does go on. And the subtlety with which Hassler juxtaposes the narrow, provincial town and his backdrop -- our knowledge that the world is being changed, at this moment, forever -- gives his story the impact of a blind-side punch. At some point while reading this book, you'll find yourself wrenching its spine as if it were the neck of one of the many priggish bigots who strut and preen through its pages: How can you be so petty, particularly in these times? Jon Hassler continues to write some of the truest fiction around.
                                                                           Minnesota Monthly
                                                                                 August 1987
                                                                            By Timothy Brady

Set in 1944 against the backdrop of World War II, it focuses on Hank and Catherine Foster, newcomers to Plum, Minn., and their attempts to succeed in a newly-acquired grocery business. While their 12-year-old son, Brendan, strives for a niche at school and Catherine's octogenarian father tries to adapt to life in Plum, Hank and Catherine struggle to surmount the town's prejudice toward outsiders and its hostile religious division separating Roman Catholics and Lutherans. The Fosters' ingenuity, hard work and integrity soon make Hank's Market prosper. Their son gains a circle of friends by repudiating the person who first reaches out to him, Dodger Hicks, a curiously sympathetic juvenile delinquent whose presence in Brendan's life both tests and matures him. It is after Brendan suffers a personal loss that he discovers the meaning of charity and love. Despite a few slow moments and stock secondary characters, this well-constructed novel effectively portrays human weakness and triumph. Without sentimentality, Mr. Hassler illustrates -- in the spirit, if not the virtuosity, of Flannery O'Connor -- that we often learn more about God from misfits than do-gooders or saints. While the grand opening of the title refers specifically to Hank's store, it finds an ironic parallel in Brendan's expanding sympathies and growing awareness.
                                                                  New York Times Book Review
                                                                                   July 1987
                                                                              Gardner McFall


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