North of Hope (1990)

by Jon Hassler

Frank Healy and Libby Girard were friends and confidantes in high school in Linden Falls, Minnesota, and an inner voice told Frank  "she's the one." But Frank had also been told — not so subtly — that the last words of his mother, who died when he was 11, were "I want Frank to be a priest." So, he chose the priesthood over Libby.

A quarter of a century after high school, Frank and Libby are both back in far northern Minnesota. Frank, aware of a "leak" in his spirit, is seeking renewal through assignment to his hometown church and the nearby Ojibwa Indian parish. There he encounters Libby, whose third husband, a sleazy doctor, has been court ordered
because of a drug violation to serve with the health service on the Indian reservation. Libby's manic depressive adult daughter, Verna, is with them.

As her marriage and her daughter both are coming apart, Libby grows increasingly depressed and dependent on Frank. He walks a fine line between pastoral care and his feelings for her. His vocation, already shaky, faces its ultimate test.

"It's like hope doesn't reach this far north," Libby remarks during her depression. But there is hope in North of Hope, despite mental illness, drug dealing, attempted suicide, incest, and murder. Libby finds the courage to face her future, largely thanks to Father Frank, whose ability to "love on a higher plane" confirms that he is in the right calling.

Of course, readers who don't agree with the Catholic Church's stance on clerical celibacy would question why Frank has to make a choice. Since his subjects tend to be priests and other modern-day Catholics, Hassler, who teaches English at St. John's University in Minnesota, is not especially well known. Those who can see past the overt religious aspects will find in his novels universal themes about small-town life and human kindness.


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