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Miles Pruitt grew up in Staggerford, Minnesota, he went to school there, and now he teaches English in the high school--a lifetime of lunches in the school cafeteria, a lifetime of writing or correcting themes, a lifetime of friendships, a life of solid continuity. This is the story of one week in Miles's life and in the life of Staggerford; it is a week of small disturbances and minor conflicts that build to an unforeseen and violent climax.

Jon Hassler writes with a simple grace and a sense of tragic irony that are set always against his awareness of the absurdity of everyday human behavior and the humor of the inappropriate response to life's contingencies.

Staggerford, Minnesota, is populated by ordinary people who can be seen, through Hassler's astute and ironic vision, as quite extraordinary. There is Agatha McGee, Pruitt's landlady who, after teaching at least two generations of Staggerford's children, has come to believe in the imminent return of the Dark Ages, and who can rise to any occasion when driven by her personal code of morality. There is Superintendent Stevenson, who, against his better judgment, believed it when he was told he was an Indian expert and who has lived to regret his youthful hubris. Now he is equally convinced of his own frailty, and his body has folded in on itself to echo, physically, his psychological withdrawal from life. Coach Gibbon rides his personal hobby-horse, trying, season after season, to squeeze a winning team out of Staggerford's losers while his wife, Stella, frolics with mindless abandon in the office of the local dentist. Imogene Kite, the ungainly librarian who is Miles's current companion; Thanatopsis Workman, whom Miles loves from afar; Beverly, the bonewoman's daughter who, through Miles, is seeking a better life--these are only a few of Staggerford's remaining inhabitants.

Their lives are generally quite ordinary, though they would not see them as such, and from their views of themselves and their reactions to the world around them, Jon Hassler has derived a pathos and a humor that make Staggerford at once a very moving and a very funny book.

Page One

FIRST HOUR, Miles yawned.

It seemed to Miles that while the faces changed from year to year, the personality of a first-hour class never varied. It was a tractable class. Most of the thirty students hadn't been out of bed for more than half an hour and they weren't yet sharp or restless. Like Miles, they were sleepy. Moreover, they were slow-witted. The Staggerford High School band rehearsed during first hour, and the better students for some reason were inevitably drawn to band. Each morning as the band marched across the street to the football field, high-stepping and tooting in preparation for its halftime formations, these thirty students were left in the classroom to puzzle over the formations of the compound sentence or the working parts of the business letter. Love poems by Rod McKuen were beyond them. To say that all nonmusicians were dull would have been unwarranted, and Miles would not have said it. What he would have said, however, was that Staggerford's nonmusicians were dull. But it was an agreeable, easygoing sort of dullness that would never lead to trouble; and since Miles himself was no ball of fire at eight in the morning, he and these thirty seniors moved comfortably through the weeks together, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.

Miles thought of Lee Fremling, who sat facing him in the front row, as the emblem of first hour. Lee Fremling was heavy, good-natured, and lethargic. He was the son of Albert Fremling, editor of the Staggerford Weekly and the wildest father a boy could possibly have. But none of this wildness seemed to have been handed down to Lee. Albert Fremling was an alcoholic with a passion for driving on Friday nights as fast as he could go. One Friday last spring Albert Fremling had swerved to miss a tree and smashed, doing eighty-five, into a small house at the edge of town. At the time, fortunately, the widow who lived in the house was in the hospital with a broken hip (she had fallen from the bottom rung of a stepladder while taking off storm windows) and so was spared being run over in bed, but the editor was left with a permanently crippled left arm and a scarred forehead. Mrs. Fremling could recall the names of at least seventy-five people who had tried over the years to cure her husband of his drinking and his suicidal driving-- the names of highway patrolmen, psychiatrists, businessmen, neighbors, jailers, and the pastors of three Lutheran churches--all to no avail. By nightfall on Fridays the Staggerford Weekly was out on the street, and that was when its editor drank himself cockeyed and got into his red Pontiac and flew off down the highway to Berrington or crisscrossed the prairie south of the river, his headlights sailing over the dirt roads and lighting up, when-he doubled back, the clouds of his own dust. People sitting in their houses with their windows open could hear the squeal of the editor's tires as he left town, and sometimes they could hear, shouted from his car, his pledge never to return; but he never traveled beyond the limits of Berrington County and he always came home before morning, sometimes on bail, often sick, and always profoundly depressed.

How then (Miles wondered) could there have come from Albert Fremling's house such a son as Lee--slow and congenial and even-tempered? Lee must have been what his mother and grandmother had made him. Mrs. Fremling was a small, cool woman, and Mrs. Fremling's mother who lived with them, was just like her. These two women-- neat and efficient, smart and silent--kept the house and yard and newspaper office and Lee (all except the editor himself) orderly. But in sheltering Lee from the grossness of his father, it seemed to Miles that these two women had prolonged in him the illusions of childhood, and had delayed the coming on of worldly wisdom. Lee's eyes were full of innocence. On the football field, despite his size, he was pushed around a good deal. He was large like his father, but this largeness was not, like his father's, the bulk of self-indulgence. It was baby fat.

Second hour, Miles was off balance.

The issue hadn't been settled yet, but he suspected that second-hour English was out of his control. It was a rowdy class--a mixture of athletes, flirts, musicians, and showoffs. The band was back indoors now, full of fresh air and smart remarks, and the sun was up over the administrative wing across the courtyard, filling Miles's classroom with intense light and shadow. Unable to channel all this nine o'clock pep where he wanted it to go, Miles had to spend most of second hour patrolling the aisles and twirling about on his toes to see the antics going on behind his back.

Reviews

It happens in Minnesota
The author's name is Jon Hassler. Bear it in mind.
His Staggerford is an absolutely smashing first novel.
The title is the name of a middle-sized Minnesota town where Miles Pruitt was born and brought up and now teaches high-school English. The story is of one week in Priutt's life -- a week beginning at 8 in the morning on Oct. 30 and ending in the mid-afternoon Nov. 7.
This is a novel of confrontation, of love, of sympathy and affection. It is packed with the quirks and quiddities of the Staggerford citizenry -- and with some splendidly hilarious scenes.
Hassler has brought us a village portrait gallery, done in a gently mocking, realistic irony which is delightful.
Staggerford is an altogether succesfull work, witty, inteligent, compassionate. Jon Hassler is a name to remember. A writer who begins this well, this solidly, is going to go a long way. Mark my words.
                                        Review by Eugenia Thornton
                                                        Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Small town life"
Staggerford, Minn., is the locale of Jon Hassler's first novel, a thoroughly convincing X-ray vision of small-town life through the eyes of Miles Pruitt, a 35-year-old high school English teacher.
The very ordinariness of these people, their actions and this plot is precisely what makes Staggerford a worthwhile commentary on how we live and how we die. Hassler is able to look beneath the surface and trace the human comedy in all its contortions in Staggerford, and the result is a book that ought not to be missed.
This is the town where everyone wants his children to grow up, and Hassler tells us what happens when they do.
Hassler has confidently shaped Staggerford around such certainties, and populated it with prototypic -- but hardly stereotypic -- characters that continue to surprise, delight and horrify the reader; they are, in short, fictional creations that are just as real as the problems they grapple with.
In getting them all together in Staggerford and turning his town to life, Jon Hassler has created a throughly satisfying piece of fiction, one that is simultaneously so sincere, so true, so honest with itself and so very, very, funny that a reader often has to wipe the tears out of the corners of his eyes before he can -- as he must -- read on.
                                                    The Houston Post
                                                     August 28, 1977
                                               By Mitzi M. Brunsdale

"The sounds of subversion"

Staggerford is a surprise. It looks at first like an undemanding provincial satire, in 'Main Street' tradition, on a small town high school in Minnesota, with a predictable comic cast and a good line in mild school jokes: 'Never burden a child with a book written earlier than that child's date of birth.' 'It may be an old attitude, but I am currently holding it.' 'Find out, and if it's awfully bad don't tell me.'

But Jon Hassler is more interesting than this. While the comedy comes to a head, very convincingly, in an absurd confrontation between the school and the Indian community, the blighted lives of some of the schoolchildren, and the difficulties of the sympathetic, unheroic hero introduce an unexpectedly stern, hard-edged quality, and allow for a startling and perfectly controlled tragic outcome.

                                                The London Observer
                                                      June 25, 1978
                                                    By Hermione Lee
 

 

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