In the opening of Lorna Landvik's new novel, "Chronicles of a Radical Hag (With Recipes)," longtime Granite Creek Gazette columnist Haze Evans has suffered a stroke. As she lies in a coma, the newspaper staff wonders how to fill the void. Haze has chronicled political and personal events in the town for 50 years. Because her column is such a fixture, the newspaper's publisher, Susan McGrath, decides to rerun some of the old columns, choosing her own son, Sam, to do the curating.
Sam is a sullen teenager reeling from his parents' recent breakup. He is not happy about rifling through the un-digitized files of some old lady. He's not happy about anything. But as he reads Haze's work (marveling at handwritten responses sent through the mail!) a change comes over him. Reading about births and deaths and marriages, trips to the Boundary Waters, Thanksgiving visitors, Edith Bunker's death, former neighbors now in nursing homes, all against the backdrop of the JFK assassination, Vietnam, Title IX, Three Mile Island, Reagan, the AIDS crisis, the Challenger explosion, Hillary Clinton — he begins to change.
Gradually, this chronic eye-roller becomes curious and empathetic. He googles things. He watches old movies. He talks to his mother. He even introduces Haze's columns to his friends who, reading them in their journalism class, find her reporting "retro-chic."
And Sam is not the only one who changes as the result of this retrospective. His mother, stressed from a recent divorce, begins to see her ex-husband in a gentler light; an ornery receptionist grows a heart; a widowed nurse dares to date again; a Fox News-infused curmudgeon brews coffee for a liberal; high school students learn to reflect on their lives.
The novel is a love letter to journalism, particularly the columnists who report on ordinary lives with simplicity and grace. If journalism is "the first rough draft of history," then columnists are our Shakespearean fools taking the king down a notch while lifting up the everyday.
When New York Times columnist Russell Baker died Jan. 21, I found myself rereading some of his columns. I read about fruitcake, women's shoulder pads, dishwashing, Richard Nixon, and the new math. In his foreword to "The Last Word," a 1997 collection of Times obituaries, Baker writes, "I am amused to realize that half the present population of the United States will not recognize (most of) the names that made up the environment in which my life was lived. From their viewpoint I am a creature from another planet."
Landvik's heartwarming novel is packed with big-hearted people tenderly and hilariously learning to appreciate the past and each other by visiting the planet of the town's octogenarian columnist and coming away the richer for it.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
Chronicles of a Radical Hag (With Recipes)
By: Lorna Landvik.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 304 pages, $25.95.
Events: Literature Lovers' Night Out, 7 p.m. March 26, Trinity Lutheran Church, Stillwater, and 7 p.m. March 27, Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, $15 each; Club Book, 7 p.m. April 25, Prior Lake Public Library; Wordplay festival, 2:15 p.m. May 12, downtown Minneapolis.