The title might put you off: “Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).” A little cutesy, a little long-winded. But even if Lorna Landvik’s latest novel might also be described as a little cutesy and a little long-winded, it has substance and purpose.
Welcome to Granite Creek, Minnesota, and its local newspaper, the Granite Creek Gazette. Since the 1960s, Hazel “Haze” Evans has been writing a column that’s heavy on personal anecdote and perspective. Unfortunately, as the book opens, Haze has fallen into a coma. While she’s visited and cared for by her many friends who hold out hope, current publisher Susan McGrath decides a print tribute is in order. She starts rerunning some of Haze’s best columns, and soon locals look forward to the retro weekly installments filled with wit, wisdom and recipes for treats with cornball names like “Aunt Alma’s Goodwill Crescent Cookies” and “Thanks for Caring Butterscotch Bars.”
Sometimes Haze takes her own experience and connects it to the communal; sometimes she muses on current events and reminds everyone how much they affect the lives of everyday people. But it’s when she veers toward the political, especially the feminist, that some of the town’s more conservative and cantankerous residents object — objections that the Gazette also ran back in the day. It turns out that many of Haze’s columns remain relevant, along with her Minnesota brand of warmhearted liberalism. Haze is anti-war, pro-abortion rights and believes women are the equals of men.
When her frequent adversary Mr. Joseph Snell writes that he wishes the paper would stop running “this radical hag’s screeds,” you know the titular phrase will become a rallying cry to Haze’s fans. While not all of those are women, it’s the women who understand how simply speaking — let alone voicing unpopular opinions — can lead to labels like “radical,” “hag” and much worse.
When Susan digs a bit deeper into the newspaper archives, she uncovers a stash of columns about Haze’s long-ago marriage that illuminate the ailing writer’s tender side. Granite Creek-ites sigh as Dr. Royal Kirby woos Haze with dinners at places like Zig’s Supper Club; in the present, Haze’s nurse Mercedes tries to help her daughter’s partner come out to her mother. While both of these subplots are enjoyable, neither is necessary.
The stronger story concerns Susan’s son, Sam. His parents are separated and he feels like his high school’s biggest nerd. When Susan gives him the “job” of sorting Haze’s columns for republication, Sam not only discovers his own interest in writing, he starts to communicate on a more adult level with his lonely, worried mother. He, like Haze (and perhaps Landvik), puzzles life out best through words. Sam starts writing to Haze, and, speaking of his fellow students, tells her, “your voice made us want to use ours better.” This is a real tribute to all of the small-town, warmhearted, big-mouthed “radical hags” out there, and a truly fun read for them, too.
“Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes)” by Lorna Landvik, University of Minnesota Press, 320 pp., $25.95