Shortly before I finished my advance copy of Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes), I got into arguments with my relatives on Facebook about the Mueller Investigation, which had just been released a couple days prior. The heroine of the novel, Haze Evans, would consider that a relevant detail. I felt as if our country was hopelessly divided, like our news outlets may as well be beamed to different populations of Americans from different planets, like we would never have peace or justice again.
Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) will likely not please the relatives who argued with me about Mueller’s investigation being a “witch hunt” that exonerated Donald Trump, or many other readers who are right of center. Author Lorna Landvik and the columnist Haze Evans, nicknamed a “radical hag” by a right-wing local who almost obsessively hate-read her work, come from a decidedly liberal and feminist point of view. At the beginning of the novel, 81-year-old Haze suffers from a massive stroke on a summer day and becomes comatose. The publisher of her newspaper, Susan, the granddaughter of the man who hired Haze, decides to run earlier columns in hopes that Haze will recover. Susan’s 14-year-old son Sam is tasked with going through over 50 years of columns and letters as a summer job.
While Haze doesn’t speak, per se, Landvik uses the clever trick of letting her speak through her locally renowned columns, from the 1960s to 2016, from youth to old age. Through the summer and early fall, details of Haze and her amazing life in Minnesota emerge. Some of them come as an unwelcome surprise to the people who loved and respected her. The columns Landvik writes for Haze place ordinary events in small-town Minnesota life against the backdrops of American history and culture. When Haze upsets a few too many conservative locals, her publisher suggested that she run recipes occasionally to mollify them. That leads to the “(with Recipes)” portion of the title. Actual dessert recipes that sound enticing are run occasionally.
But it’s not all about Haze. While she lays comatose and the columns are rerun, the lives of other newspaper staffers, Susan, Sam, the dedicated hospital nurse Mercedes, and others go on. Their stories are told as well. While Haze was opinionated, she never believed that divisions were hopeless. She used her voice but was never cruel about it. Her example radiates to other characters and touches them in small ways. The novel ends shortly after the election of Donald Trump, but that is far from the most important development for any of these characters.
All in all, Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) is a lovely and pleasant story of a life well-lived, and the many ways a life and a voice can influence the world around them. At some points, Landvik’s vision is a trifle too predictable and optimistic. However, I found the basic optimism in her and Haze’s views, even in the face of negativity, refreshing. Perhaps I will bake my uncle and cousin some of Haze’s Almond Crescents, even as I become a Radical Hag.