From the Minneapolis Star Tribune - published December 4, 2005  http://www.startribune.com/stories/384/5756088.html


At 87, Agatha McGee is still learning about life

Agatha McGee returns in Minnesota author Jon Hassler's latest Staggerford novel, "The New Woman." At 87, she's still a force to be reckoned with - as is her wise and ailing creator.

Pamela Miller, Star Tribune

How much trouble can an upright, uptight, 87-year-old Catholic ex-schoolmarm get into? Can such a stiff old small-town gal be any fun at all? Will readers -- so many of us jaded, harried and hurried -- care?

Plenty, sure, and heck yes,

when the character in question is Agatha McGee, the aggravating, endearing heroine of Minnesota writer Jon Hassler's stories set in fictional Staggerford, Minn. Agatha is back in his latest, "The New Woman," and like her creator, she is more venerable and vulnerable, but by no means done in.

Is anyone as wise as Hassler about the people and life of Minnesota's small towns? Here he establishes himself even more eloquently as a witness to the sorrows and frustrations of aging, as well as the grace and wisdom that often accompany it.

Agatha is "the new woman" at Sunset Senior Apartments in Staggerford, a soulless block of architecture that her increasingly fragile condition has forced her into. She misses her stately family home and is not amused by the lunchroom gossip, nosy neighbors and casino bus trips that are staples of senior living.

Slowly, however, she gets to know some of her peers, including ill-spoken, good-hearted farmer John Beezer, who develops a crush on her when she corrects his grammar.

The lively cast includes many we've met before in the Staggerford novels -- Agatha's National Enquirer-loving friend Lillian Kite, amiable Father Healy, Agatha's depressive grand-nephew Frederick and the menacing murderess Corrine Bingham, just released from a mental hospital.

Some of these people have cause to grieve; some cause grief. Some get into trouble. And some die. Indeed, sorrow, trouble and mortality are ever-present. Yet this is also one of Hassler's funniest novels.

Hassler's humor

The wit is wry and subtle at times, laugh-out-loud funny at others, and oddly wise even in the story's most sobering moments.

A couple of examples: Agatha subjects an unruly modern classroom to an old-fashioned lecture and a hilarious psychological analysis. And, when she learns that a priest has cancer, she wonders what God was thinking, given the national priest shortage.

Agatha, alternately severe and kindly as she moves among her people, trots into a number of adventures, including the unearthing of a coffin that holds a box of treasures, the kidnapping of an unlovable little girl, and the inadvertent creation of a wildly popular support group for people with mental and emotional problems.

By story's end, Agatha is 88, and "a new woman" in other ways as she discovers that a more humble, less private life and increasing interdependency have their share of joys too.

Sage about age

On the surface, "The New Woman" is lighthearted and humorous, full of eccentrics and almost vaudevillian antics. But Hassler is no lightweight, and his wisdom about aging and mortality shine through.

There is nothing simple or sweet about his elderly characters, whether the scene is humorous or poignant. Agatha tells the little girl, "Life is so short, but the afternoons are so long, don't you agree?" Attendants at a Parkinson's disease support group speak of frequent falls in voices that tremble and fail them, and of tears springing forth in the most unlikely moments.

Nor are these old folks rigid -- even the passionately religious Agatha is given to questioning the very nature of things, thinking tearfully at a friend's funeral that "death is a flaw in God's plan."

Hassler is 72 and has his own struggles with his health, so "The New Woman" is a welcome arrival from this author and a welcome reappearance of a beloved character. Agatha, though fading in health, is growing in power, and Hassler is, too. We will hope, then, for at least one more story of this remarkable life, from this remarkable writer.


By: Jon Hassler

Publisher: Viking Press, $23.95, 214 pages

Review: The latest chapter in the life of Agatha McGee, now 87, the matriarch of Minnesota author Hassler's fictional town of Staggerford, is rich in humor, poignancy and wisdom.



"Agatha McGee had been a resident of the Sunset Senior Apartments only three days when she realized that she'd lost the diamond brooch her parents had given her when she'd graduated from Staggerford High School in 1927. Having spent the morning looking for it until she was too exhausted to stir herself for lunch in the dining room downstairs, she sat in her rocking chair by the window and absently watched the traffic pass below her on Main Street. Sunset Senior was a long, two-story building abutting the business district, and Agatha was thought by her friends to have the best room of all, front and center and only a few steps from the elevator. From this vantage point the town looked strange to her. It was a much busier place than she'd thought. Having spent her 87 years looking out the windows of her house on River Street, she had carried around the image of Staggerford as a bucolic, serene little hamlet, and she was under the false impression that she was still acquainted with all its citizens, as she had been in her teaching days. But now, watching cars pull in and out of the lot in front of the Kmart across the street, she realized that there were hundreds of people living in this town whom she didn't know."

From "The New Woman," by Jon Hassler



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