Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Review of Hassler's Novel North of Hope

Editor's Note: Three of the journalism students this fall, Brother William Petry, Brother Jorge Haro, and Luis Trujillo, completed the Unfamiliar Genre Project. This semester, each student focused on a different type of reviewing.  MAS Journalism is pleased to publish their final centerpiece reviews as well as their reflections on the process of working with the Unfamiliar Genre Project.

Previous MAS Journalism students, Daniel Miller and Carl Sisolak, have also completed the Unfamiliar Genre Project.

A Review of Hassler's North of Hope by Brother William Petry, M.Sp.S

North of Hope: A Novel by Jon Hassler
Ballatime Books, 1990 518 pp.
ISBN: 0-345-36910-6

“Have you ever felt like killing yourself?”
“Neither had I, until this winter. It’s like hope doesn’t reach this far north.”

I picked up this novel after listening to Abbot Peter Eberle’s O.S.B. inaugural address for Mount Angel Seminary, in which he mentioned three fictional novels about priests who underwent dynamic stories of redemption. I chose Jon Hassler’s North of Hope: A Novel and was surprised by how well the story unfolded.

Jon Hassler (1933-2008) has a legacy as an outstanding novelist, even in his less successful publications, as in the case with North of Hope. Hassler was a professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and spent the majority of his life teaching English and writing. He wrote about ordinary life events in such an eloquent way that it is relatable and exciting to an extended group of readers.

Though he did not intend to be considered a Catholic or religious novelist, his novels are imbued succinctly with his Catholic faith and has engaged both Catholic and non-Catholic readers. Hassler explores themes of fulfillment in life that are not based on a conventional romance, he seeks to uncover an internal conviction that is not based on an external relationship or cause. In addition to this Hassler explores the essence of good and evil in the 21st century.
These themes are clearly seen in North of Hope which focuses on an upright and adventurous Catholic priest who struggles internally with questions of love, purpose, and fulfillment in his vocation. Hassler allows his readers to enter inside the hidden world of Father Frank Healy and feel the rawness of his life as a mere man with a divine mission and reverberate with his struggle to fight for the good of those he serves. He struggles with his option for the priesthood and is perturbed by an unreconciled past which he is forced to confront in order to decide whether or not to leave the priesthood.

Father Healy’s life is affected by two women who are key to the development of his character and the ultimate decision he will make: whether to remain as a priest or leave the priesthood. Eunice Pfeiffer, a rigid, dominating, but well-intentioned woman, became Frank’s nanny as a child after his mother passed away. Eunice felt the need to remind Frank constantly of his dying mother’s wish that he become a priest. The second woman is Libby Girard, a delicate, light-hearted woman who seems to enamor everyone she comes in contact with by her physical beauty and natural charm. Her life first crosses Frank’s path in high school, and this connection is re-established by fate twenty years later. She becomes the woman he loves, causing him to question his ideal of fulfillment and the convictions he has for his vocation.

The elements of good and evil in North of Hope are intermingled as they are manifested in real life. The novel takes place in a tiny town in Minnesota where good and bad live amid each other. Hassler presents evil through alcoholism, drugs, and corruption, which lead to death through murder and suicide. A medical doctor caring for Native Americans unsuspectingly turns out to be the source of corruption in the rural town of Minnesota. In the middle of Frank’s struggle to care for the people in his new assignment, he finds himself tangled emotionally with Libby.

With an unsuspecting revelation by Eunice Pfeiffer on her deathbed, Frank’s motivations for becoming a priest are challenged. With his heart emotionally attached to his long-time friend Libby, he is forced to dig deep inside himself and define his convictions in the midst of blurred lines of life.
As I read through this novel, I felt instantly connected with the characters. I particularly related to Father Frank Healy’s role as a man struggling to consolidate his vocation as a priest.  I saw many of my own questions and ponderings about my vocation enacted in his feat in the story. I visualized my own life and the various factors that motivate me to make vocational decision to enter religious life as he did.

This novel, nevertheless, is not only applicable to seminarians, Catholics, or believers; Hassler speaks to everyone. This isn’t a novel promoting the vocation to the priesthood; it is a story that asks the question: Are you fulfilled?  The heart of the conflict isn’t about whether Fr. Healy is going to leave the priesthood or not; that’s a by-product of his real journey. The real question is whether Father Healy will ultimately find fulfillment.  Fulfillment, according to Hassler, is an internal dynamic. It isn’t even a religious topic; for Hassler these questions need to be asked by everyone. This is what leads Libby to attempt suicide, this is what makes Father Healy remain as a priest, and this is what drives Libby’s husband into the bottom of a frozen lake.

I was entertained from page one to five-hundred; Hassler’s easy to read and engaging style made this novel particularly enjoyable. He has an uncanny gift of unveiling the thoughts, doubts, and feelings of people who struggle to live a life of faith. He articulates simple day-to-day events as suspenseful and anything but humdrum moments. I personally appreciated this quality of the novel because it made it firmly set in reality; there were no fantastic or “too good to be true” results or causes for the characters’ plights. In the end, Hassler’s novel made me think of integrating all of life’s dynamics and discover the internal convictions that I have and that fulfillment comes from this deeper place.

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