Published in 1977, Jon Hassler's first novel is about the complexity of life, good and evil mingling together, that takes place in a small northern Minnesota town along the banks of the fictional Badbattle River. The book explores nine days in the life of Miles Pruitt, high school English teacher, who grew up in Staggerford and now boards at the home of the town's pillar of morality, Miss Agatha McGee. Agatha has taught sixth grade at St. Isadore's Catholic school for over forty years and she believes that a new Dark Age is beginning, heralded by every reform or experiment that takes place in the Roman Catholic Church or in the field of education. Miles, Agatha, and a handful of other characters are ordinary people, living in an ordinary town not unlike another fictional Minnesota town. Miles has work-related disagreements with the detail-minded principal of the high school, Wayne Workman; he is infatuated with the principal's wife, Anna Thea (he calls her Thanatopsis). Meanwhile, one of Staggerford's few single women, the librarian Imogene Kite, is hoping to get Miles for herself, there being almost no other single men in town. Also, one of Miles' students, Beverly Bingham, desperately needs a friend to talk to about her troubles at home and settles on Miles. This week, a new campaign to improve the attendance of the Indian children from the nearby reservation complicates things further for Miles and leads to a standoff between the Indian community and the State and Federal government. Although the "uprising" is quelled nonviolently, the book does not conclude without a tragic, shocking event.*
Originally titled The Willoughby Uprising, Hassler came up with the more severe-sounding name Staggerford to better reflect the harsh contents. It took six months to write and revise. Much of the story, Hassler admits, are based on things that happened in his own life while teaching at Brainerd Community College. He says the characters are about one-third real people he has known and two-thirds made up. The first printing of 5000 copies sold out in six weeks and the book was named Novel of the Year for 1978 by the Friends of American Writers. Readers loved it for it's realistic portrayal of small town life, and for its Roman Catholic flavor. Humorous and unpretentious, the story gently reveals the weaknesses of the characters as well as celebrates their strengths. I was carried along by the delightful beauty of Hassler's creation until the surprising finish; having grown to love Miles in these pages, I wanted a happier ending for him and I was actually angry with Hassler for refusing to write one.
Agatha McGee (and several other characters) return in other Hassler novels, such as A Green Journey and Dear James.
Some of the above information was gathered from an interview with Jon Hassler by Joseph Plut, published in the South Dakota Review, Spring 2001; available online at http://www.usd.edu/sdreview/39-1%20(Interview).htm
* Beware of spoiler: The Feds camp out on the Bingham property. Fearing that soldiers on the front porch might upset Mrs. Bingham, who is somewhat deranged, and cause her to hurt Beverly, Miles drives out to the farm to check on things, arrives just after the occupying force has left, and is killed by Mrs. Bingham.