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[465] Grand Opening – Jon Hassler

” She had clered in books at Dayton’s. She had loved smelling them. She was counting on Plum’s library to help dispel her longing for Minneapolis, which was growing more intense by the day. She yearned for the sound of streetcars in the night, the clink of milk bottles on the stoop at dawn. Most of all, she missed the anonymity of the city. ” (Ch.8, p.65)

Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Grand Opening is such a book. Added to my satisfaction is that Jon Hassler is a new author to me.

Grand Opening recounts a year in the life of the Foster family, beginning on the day in fall 1944 when they uproot themselves from Minneapolis and move to the country village of Plum, where Hank and Catherine have invested their hopes and their life’s savings in a ramshackle grocery store, and where their son, Brendan, is about to enter seventh grade. In tow with them also is Catherine’s 80-year-old father who is disoriented by the move.

That’s exactly what I can’t stand about this town, Hank. Everything takes premeditation. Before I state a simple fact to Gordy, I have to stop and think what church Gordy goes to and what effect it will have on our income. Before I get dressed in the morning I have to think what effect my clothes will have on Mrs. Brask. Yesterday I saw a dress in the Sears catalogue that I felt like ordering, but skirts are going to be short this spring, and I decided I’m not up to being the first woman on Bean Street to be wearing a short skirt… (Ch.18, p.192)

The Fosters struggle to establish a successful supermarket while adjusting to the close-minded townspeople and their religious bigotry. They find this tightly knit, insular community as strange as foreign country. Catherine, in particular, finds community life tense and suspicious, and misses the anonymity of city life. Although they manage to turn around the impoverished condition of the store, believing that the success of Hank’s Market will secure them a place in the community, they soon discover, in dismay, that any misstep or politically incorrect move they make will ruin their business.

. . . these villagers were never so happy as when they were at odds for the love of God, and when Hank came to town he restored to them their long-lost divisiveness in the area of groceries. But Hank wasn’t convinced. If he and Paul and Wallace and Catherine remained steadfast in serving the public and absolutely noncommittal in matters of religion and politics, he foresaw the market becoming as neutral as Gordy’s Pool Hall, patronized by one and all. (Ch.15, p.160)

Soon the town comes alive under Hassler’s pen as the Fosters become inevitably entwined with the lives of townspeople. Those who attach to them are also social outcasts. Wallace Flint, the grocery clerk, is a misfit who sees in Catherine a kindred spirit. Epilepsy has prevented him from going to college, leaving him moldering in the stultifying atmosphere of Plum. He hates Dodger Hicks, a 15-year-old neglected son of a criminal father, for having insinuated himself in Hank and Catherine’s good graces. A kleptomaniac, Brendan is Dodger’s only friend. It is, however, Dodger who creates in Brendan, and in the novel, one of the fundamental dilemmas of human existence. In the Fosters Dodger has attained what he wants most in life—the chance to blend in. Through Brendan, we come to see the heroic efforts required by the deceptively easy-sounding biblical injunction: Love one another. The many priggish, self-righteous bigots that populate this book fail so badly. The juvenile delinquent’s presence in Brendan’s life both tests and matures him. With graceful and economical prose, Hassler adroitly brings small-town life in a dead-on vividness. The figurative title finds an ironic parallel in the boy’s expanding sympathies and growing awareness. Hassler illustrates that we often learn more about God from misfits than do-gooders or saints.

326 pp. Ballantine Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]