In The Staggerford Flood, Jon Hassler brings back Agatha McGee and reunites other favorite characters from his award-winning Staggerford novels. When a flood hits Staggerford and neighboring towns, Agatha McGee's house on the highest hill in town becomes a refuge for seven female neighbors, friends, and former students for three days and three nights. This deluge of old and new friends-as well as a new young priest who thinks Agatha has become a bit too zealous about morality-helps to restore Agatha's own very distinctive spark.
Because Agatha McGee's penmanship had become shaky with age, she relied on her younger friend Janet Meers to do her handwriting for her.
"Janet, are you coming into town today?" she asked over the telephone. "I have some invitations I'd like you to copy out for me and address the envelopes."
"Sure, what time?"
"Before two. Lillian comes over at two."
"I can come at eleven or one; take your pick."
"Come at eleven; we'll have lunch."
"Good, I'll bring sandwiches and soup."
Agatha protested, but not enough, fortunately, to sway Janet.
"What kind of sandwich would you like?" asked Janet.
"Tuna fish. But not in a bagel. Bagels are so hard to chew."
"Tuna on rye and bean soup. How's that?"
"That will be fine."
"What are the invitations for? Are you throwing a party?"
"I am, as a matter of fact."
A squeal of delight-"Oh, good!" Then, "Are Randy and I invited?"
"Never mind. You'll see when you get here."
Janet drove in from her split-level house on a scenic, wooded bend of the Badbattle River east of town. It was a lovely spring day. Birds were kicking up a racket in the lime-green woods, and the roadsides were purple with violets. She entered town on the high end and coasted downhill to the Badbattle, noticing how harshly the sun lay across the sidewalks and doorways now that the elms had mostly been taken down. Everything-the lawns, the houses, the people out walking-seemed overexposed to the sky. Here and there an elm remained standing, but dying, partly dismantled by wind and woodpeckers, a stark and ugly monument to the shaded and graceful past.
She parked in front of Agatha's large white house that sat on the highest lot on River Street. She was glad to see that Agatha's nephew, Frederick Lopat, had finally finished repairing the shoulder-high retaining wall that kept her front yard from spilling into the street. She was pleased, too, having climbed the steps to the yard, to see that he had raked the grass and readied the small flower beds for the annuals he'd plant in a few weeks after the threat of frost was past. This morning he was painting the wrought-iron railing leading up to the front porch.
He turned to her with his customary nod and crooked smile, a paint brush in one hand, a small can of black Rust-Oleum in the other. He was a tall, pale, stoop-shouldered man in his fifties. His "Hi, Janet" was barely audible.
"Not working today?" she asked.
"I got plenty work around here."
"I mean in Willoughby."
"Nope, Saturday's my day off."
She held up the lunch bag she'd brought. "I've got your favorite here, ham and cheese."
"Good, thanks," he mumbled, and turned back to work.
She climbed to the wide front porch and pressed the doorbell.
"The bell's on the blink again," said Frederick. "Go ahead on in."
She did so, calling Agatha's name. There was no response. She called again, crossing the living room, and once again in the dining room. It occurred to her that Agatha may be dead. She glanced into the sunroom, then pushed open the swinging door into the kitchen with trepidation, half expecting to find Agatha, in her eightieth year, collapsed on the floor. She wasn't in the kitchen, but Janet shuddered anyhow, recalling the days before the flood when she had this expectation every time she approached this house. Before the flood Agatha didn't look well. She didn't act well. She spent whole days in her chair by the front window, brooding and watching the occasional car or pedestrian go by. The flood woke her up. The flood and her new pacemaker. The change was miraculous. She came out of the ordeal looking even smaller and more fretful than she had before, but a lot of her old energy came back, her erect posture, her strong voice, her fiery opinions.
Janet noticed the door to the enclosed back porch standing slightly ajar, and she found Agatha on the back stoop shaking out her dust mop. The woman seemed to have shrunk since she last saw her a month ago. Janet's daughter Sara, when she was in the fifth grade, was as tall as Agatha was now. She turned quickly to Janet, a sparkle of good humor in her small, lively eyes, because the sight of Janet always made her glad, and said, "Ah, there you are. Isn't it a perfect day? The sun actually is sending us down some warmth."
Bending to give the old woman a peck on the cheek, Janet agreed. "Spring is early this year. Most of our snow has already disappeared."
Agatha took her arm. "Yes, and the first thing I heard this morning was a pair of wrens. I came out here to verify it and saw one of them, so I've stopped worrying that winter might come back." She went on about birds while looking Janet over. She was pleased to see her hair cut short, no wrinkles yet except smile lines around her clear, steady eyes, and the frown mark in her forehead, the latter doubtless caused by worry concerning her husband, Randy, whom Agatha had never entirely approved of.
"I thought they were orioles at first but orioles are cautious travelers, you know. They wait until it's completely safe before they come north and set up housekeeping."
With her eyes on the house across the alley, Janet said, "Lillian's place is still empty."
"It's not fit to live in. Because of the flood, you know."
"But that was almost a year ago. You mean it hasn't been repaired yet?"
"Nothing's been done. Empty ever since Imogene moved out. It's becoming an eyesore."
Lillian Kite's unmarried daughter, Imogene, as Janet knew, managed the local Carnegie Library. After the flood she had locked up the house and moved into a condo downtown. "Wouldn't you think they'd sell it?"
"It's not theirs to sell. It was usurped by the county commissioners months ago. They intended to sell it. To pay for Lillian's room at the Sunset Senior Home. But of course nobody wants damaged goods."
They stood there silent for a time, Janet's face raised to the warm sunshine, Agatha gazing at the house across the alley, recalling how, as a child, she used to watch for Lillian Kite out her kitchen window (this was before the back porch was added on). Lillian was Agatha's first and lifelong friend. Lillian's third birthday party was Agatha's first social occasion. She remembered how her anticipation turned to anxiety when she discovered Lillian's house full of three- and four-year-olds she'd never seen before. From the corners of rooms Agatha watched them screaming, wrestling, bursting balloons, and gorging themselves on popcorn and cake. Where did all these strangers come from and why was Lillian paying more attention to them than she was to Agatha? She cried. Mrs. Kite sent word to Agatha's mother and she came and took her home.
But this party was not Agatha's earliest memory. Riding over the snow on a sled was the first event in her life she remembered. Her father had equipped the sled with a box to contain her and her blankets, and her mother was pulling her downtown through a gray afternoon to visit her father at his law office and to shop for groceries. They passed the houses of Mary Lou, Frankie, and Jenny Marie, children Agatha was not yet aware of and whose birthday parties she was destined, alas, to attend.
"Come, I'll show you the invitations before lunch," she said, rousing herself from her childhood reverie. "If we don't hurry I may change my mind. I've never been a party sort of person."
Sitting at Agatha's desk in the sunroom, Janet wrote half a dozen times,
Please grant me the pleasure of your company on April 14th 4 o'clock until 7 o'clock p.m. in order that we may commemorate
our time together during the Flood of the Century.
She then addressed the envelopes and joined Agatha and Frederick in the kitchen for