Keepsakes and Other Stories
by Jon Hassler
Wood Engravings by Gaylord Schanilec
Dimensions: 10" x 7.25", 120 pages
SOUND THE TRUMPETS! This first collection of short stories by Jon Hassler deserves royal fanfare! All of these stories are set in Minnesota. Most are rooted in Jon’s own experiences when he was growing up in Plainview, Minnesota, and later as a high school English teacher in various Minnesota high schools and colleges. “I started to write boyhood memories at random,” Jon told us, “and some of them proved pretty provocative so I developed them into stories.” You’ll be glad that he did!
“These seven gentle tales treat fans of novelist Hassler to the earliest fruits of his talent.”
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.”
They seemed good to us, too, and we think you’ll like them as well. The introductory story, “Chase” was Jon’s first piece of “memory” work: “I started to write boyhood memories at random in the late 1970s. Some of them proved pretty provocative so I developed them into stories.” “Keepsakes” and “Resident Priest” are set in the 1950s, when Jon was growing up in Plainview, Minnesota. “Christopher, Moony, and the Birds,” “Chief Larson,” and “Good News in Culver Bend” are rooted in Jon’s later experiences as an English teacher in various Minnesota high schools and colleges.
For Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler, publication of his short stories means he’s closer to fulfilling his ambition of ‘getting everything I wrote between covers.’
Mary Ann Grossmann/Saint Paul Pioneer Press
It’s been a wonderful year for Minnesota writer Jon Hassler, who celebrated his 66th birthday in March.
His boyhood home in Plainview is being turned into a writers center, his Parkinson’s disease isn’t too inhibiting, and his first short-story collection is just off the presses from Afton Historical Society Press.
Hassler is nationally known for his nine adult novels set in Minnesota, several of them best sellers. But before he sold his first book in 1976, he honed his skills by writing short fiction that never saw print.
“Nobody wanted to publish these stories then because I didn’t have a name,” Hassler says, as he watches the St. Croix River flow past the Afton Historical Society Press offices in Afton.
Hassler was 37 years old and a teacher at Brainerd Community College when he began his writing career Sept. 1, 1970. He’s precise about that date.
“I finished teaching my 9 o’clock freshman English class and went to the library. I took out a notebook and pen, and began a story,” he recalls. “I badly needed to write, but I never took a writing course, so I had a lot to learn. I did that by developing boyhood memories into stories. I wrote 14 stories in 28 weeks and collected 85 rejection slips for just six of them.”
Two of his stories were published in small literary journals, and some were incorporated into his novels. But he eventually stored them away “in an old wooden filing cabinet I bought for $25 at a now-defunct department store in Brainerd.” That cabinet accompanied him to Collegeville, where he taught at St. John’s University, and to his current home in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife, Gretchen.
After Hassler’s first novel, Staggerford, was published, he wroteSimon’s Night, The Love Hunter, A Green Journey, Grand Opening, North of Hope, Dear James, Rookery Blues, and The Dean’s List.
“I found my niche. I had the personality of a novelist,” he says with his trademark understated humor. “I could work on something and not show it to anyone for a couple of years.”
It was Afton Press publisher Patricia Condon Johnston who urged Hassler to dig those old stories out of his files. They met when Johnston, who calls Hassler her “literary idol,” invited Jon to write a short story that was published as the press’s 1998 holiday book.
Underground Christmas, about a disillusioned man who finds a sort of peace, sold 8,000 copies. That makes it the best seller among the 30 books published since 1994 by the Afton Press.
“When Jon told me he had more short stories, we were so pleased to get them,” Johnston says. “Publishing his work fits our mission of bringing out Minnesota stories that otherwise might not get published.”
Johnston was so committed to Keepsakes that she hired internationally known Wisconsin master carver and letterpress printer Gaylord Schanilec to create wood engravings for the cover and the first page of each story. Schanilec is so well-known, Johnston has had inquiries about the book from as far away as London.
Hassler says that when he read his stories for the first time in 25 years, he was pleased at “how well they stood up.” He chose seven of them for Keepsakes.
The introductory story, “Chase,” is described by Hassler as “memory work” because it’s about the outdoor hide-and-seek game he and his friends played in Plainview.
The title story and “Resident Priest” are about an anti-social priest who’s modeled on a parish priest Hassler did chores for as a boy. Other stories include “Chief Larson,” about an Indian boy who shows his confusion about white culture; “Christopher, Moony, and the Birds,” a touching piece in which a college professor strolls around town with his hippie son and his stepdaughter; “Good News in Culver Bend,” about a young newspaperman who gives a woman a Christmas gift by pretending to be her fiance; and “Yesterday’s Garbage,” a lighthearted tale of murder.
Johnston and Afton Press marketing director Paul Druckman are elated about early response to Keepsakes. It’s the first book they sent to Publishers Weekly for review, and a complimentary review ran in the magazine’s Aug. 23 edition. Advance orders from bookstores and distributors were so high, Johnston increased the first press run from 5,000 to 7,000 copies. And Hassler has been chosen as the first writer to be celebrated as a Barnes & Noble Star of the North, meaning his work will be featured in all the Minnesota B&N stores Wednesday through Oct. 30.
All this attention has convinced Johnston to publish a paperback edition of Keepsakes, which will be the press’s first foray into paperback fiction.
For Hassler, publication of his stories means he’s closer to fulfilling his ambition of “getting everything I wrote between covers.” He doesn’t want to experience the fate of his fellow writer and St. John’s teaching colleague, the late J.F. Powers, whose excellent work was out of print for years.
Although Parkinson’s disease has given Hassler some problems with his voice, which is sometimes weak, and causes him to walk unsteadily, he says he feels fine. “I’ve got six projects going, and that’s a change for me. I used to have a one-track mind.”
Those projects include completing a memoir and a new novel featuring one of Hassler’s most popular characters, Agatha McGee, former teacher at St. Isidore’s school in Staggerford and protagonist of Dear James and A Green Journey.
“Agatha is 89 this year, but she’s holding her own in her house on the river,” Hassler says. “And she’s still talking to me as strongly as ever. My mother died at 91, and there was a good part of my mother in Agatha. But she didn’t go away. The part of me in Agatha is still going strong.”