Sound the Trumpets! This first collection of short stories by Jon Hassler deserves royal fanfare!! Five of these stories are published here for the first time. Two-- "Chase" and "Chief Larson"-- appeared in literary magazines in the 1970s, before Jon began his meteoric rise to fame as a novelist. (Jon's first book, Staggerford, was chosen Novel of the Year in 1977 by the Friends of American Writers.)
Most of these stories were written during the five or six years preceding Staggerford. They weren't publishable then, Jon told us, "because I didn't have a name." He wrote twenty-some stories in all, and in the process of publishing just six of them, collected eighty-five rejection slips. He went right on writing, he said. "I loved writing, and the stories seemed good to me."
Last year the Afton Historical Society Press was pleased beyond words when Jon agreed to write our annual holiday book. This small volume, Underground Christmas, was actually the first short story Jon had published in twenty years, and it became our best-selling book ever. When Jon subsequently offered us this collection of short stories, we promptly said yes. We also asked him to tell us something about each of them and what, if anything, in his life had enkindled them. Most of these stories are rooted in his own experiences.
The introductory story, "Chase," was Jon's first piece of "memory" work, and he had always intended it for a book of this nature, he said. It led eventually to his book Grand Opening (1987). "I started to write boyhood memories at random in the late 1970s," Jon recalled. "Some of them proved pretty provocative so I developed them into stories. Then it occurred to me that maybe I had a novel in my reserves, so I started Grand Opening."
Jon's favorite among these stories is "Christopher, Moony, and the Birds"; "I pictured this college professor living in this conservative neighborhood and having one of his hippie students come over and embarrass him in front of his neighbors. I love some of those neighbors. The descriptions of them are very interesting to me. At the end of the first draft, I discovered that the hippie was the professor's son." As for the professor, well, there is a lot of Jon Hassler in him. Jon taught at Brainerd Community College from 1968 until 1980.
"Keepsakes" and its sequel, "Resident Priest," are set in the 1950s, when Jon was growing up in Plainview, Minnesota. The ascetic and anti-social Father Fogarty is based on the parish priest (who in reality was named Father O'Connor). Like teenaged Roger Rudy in "Keepsakes," Jon helped the priest pack to move away when he retired. "I remember that day, hot August day, and all those birdcages I found in his attic. He had them from a former housekeeper who loved birds. Every time a bird died, he said, she'd buy a new cage because she didn't want any "death cages" around."
"Father O'Connor was a hard man to get to know," Jon said. "I cut the grass for the church for two or three summers and every time I went to the rectory to be paid, he asked me what my name was."
Jon helped the priest burn a lifetime of "keepsakes", letters, photographs, old newspapers, sheet music. In one yellowed diocesan newspaper, he discovered a poem that Father O'Connor had written many years earlier when he edited the paper. "It seemed so unlike him to have written a poem," Jon said. Jon went home that day with a piece of sheet music the priest was discarding, "Red Sails in the Sunset," which is now one of his "keepsakes."
In "Resident Priest," Father Fogarty ends his days as the priest at St. Mary's Convent. Jon located the nuns' house on an isolated promontory on the Mississippi River. "I cut the grass for a banker who had a cabin on a similar promontory in Kellogg, about thirteen miles from Plainview," Jon said. "It was so interesting being there, watching the river coming towards you, just like being on a ship."
Jon patterned Mother Superior Sister Simon after his first grade teacher, Sister Simona: "She was bossy like that. Most nuns I knew in those days were bossy. They told you how to live your life and what to do. I could just imagine Sister Simona as mother superior there, bossing those other nuns and that caretaker around. The caretaker, Mr. Booker, is a mystery to me; where he came from. He's an interesting guy. He likes it there. He knows how to put up with the nuns."
Old Father Fogarty arrives at St. Mary's exhausted and in poor condition after getting his car mired in the mud en route. The nuns give him a room next to the chapel, and his first evening there he wakes to the "faint high hum" of nuns' chanting coming through his wall. He thinks at first it might be mosquitoes.
"I remember being in Winona at St. Teresa's, in the chapel, and the nuns were singing." Jon said. "My dad came out and said, 'It sounds just like a bunch of mosquitoes.'"
Early in his career, Jon taught high school English in Park Rapids, near the White Earth Reservation. His story "Chief Larson" is "made up," Jon said, "but I was interested in how an Indian kid would handle white culture." "Chief" Larson's boredom on Sunday afternoon was the boredom Jon remembered from Sunday afternoons when he was a boy. "My parents would put on classical music and lie down and take a nap. I thought I'd die of boredom. Then when we lived in Minneapolis my cousins came from New York. One was about five or six years old. His name was O'Neil. Grandfather took him down to the drugstore on Forty-third and Bryant to buy tobacco, and on the way home O'Neil peed on the boulevard. My grandfather was so mad at him. So I used that."
The characters and plot for "Yesterday's Garbage"-an unorthodox tale of murder in Minneapolis-came entirely out of his head, Jon said. He recently adapted this story for his play The Staggerford Murders, which premiered this past March at the Lyric Theater in Minneapolis. In May The Staggerford Murders played to full houses in the new Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview. (The theater is being completed in a former implements store. Jon's boyhood home is also being moved uptown and renovated to serve as a writers' center.)
There's also a Christmas story in this book-"Good News in Culver Bend," inspired, Jon said, by a newspaperman friend of his. "This reporter got sick of writing the same story every year when school opened-the story about being careful when you're driving so that you don't hit kids. This was in a town where no one had ever hit a kid."
In "Culver Bend," two newspapermen go out looking for a new kind of Christmas story. "They go to Culver Bend, which is actually Outing in northern Minnesota, where I went one day in 1977," Jon said. "An eighth-grade teacher invited me up there to speak to her class and I arrived to find that they had released the whole school to hear me. The students were all in the gymnasium, sitting under the basketball hoop, and I stood there talking to them. It was such an interesting school, with two classes in a room and a library, and it was so far away from everything, so remote, so I used it in my story."
After he finished speaking, Jon asked the students if there were any questions, and there were: "One kid said, "How much do you make?" and I said I make ten percent of the retail price." Jon remembered. "I was talking about Four Miles to Pinecone [one of Jon's two books for young readers]. I said "This book costs $7.95, and so how much do I make on this?" They all got out their pencils and they started working in their notebooks. They had a lot of different answers. Finally one kid said 79 cents. "I said to him, 'So you see, therefore, every time you buy a book I can buy a hamburger.' Then this kid in the back row-the one who had asked about the money-raised his hand and said, "There's a place in Garrison where you can get a hamburger for 35 cents.'"
If you like the Keepsakes stories, stay tuned. We're already at work on a second volume of Jon's short stories. We plan to publish Rufus at the Door & Other Stories in the year 2000.
Patricia Condon Johnston, August 1999
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