Wednesday, April 09, 2008


In Which We Say Goodbye to A Best-Kept Secret...

Ah, jeez. I just found out that Jon Hassler died.

I've told several people today, and their reaction, sad to say, was the same as yours may well have been: A blank stare and a one-word response: "Who?"

Mr. Hassler wrote some 20 novels in a career that spanned a little over 30 years. He was probably best known for his first book, Staggerford, the story of a week in the life of a small Minnesota town, as seen through the eyes of its high-school English teacher. A couple of Mr. Hassler's books ended up on best-seller's lists and one of his books was turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, but that's about as deep a penetration as he made into the popular consciousness. By and large I liked to think of him as one of American fiction's best-kept secrets, which I always thought was a shame, but a bit of a guilty pleasure too. I think we all like to feel that we each have some secret treasure that's largely ours, undiscovered by the masses, and Jon Hassler was mine. (Although really, that was just a personal conceit. He was by no means ignored nor unsuccessful. I know he was held in high regard in Minnesota, and among other writers and novelists, and Hillary even had him to the White House, so how much of a secret could he have been?)

I myself had never heard of the man until 1990. My girlfriend at the time--herself a creative writing student and about as well-read a person as I could ever hope to meet--had given me Staggerford after I shared with her my desire to one day write about my own small town. I read the book in one sitting and found myself hoping then--and hoping still--to write just one book half as fine. Because even though it was a work of fiction, the book shone with truth and a gentle humor that made me a fan of Mr. Hassler's for life. I gave copies of the book to several friends, and also to my mom, who shared the same birthday with Mr. Hassler, March 30. She was especially fond of his work and I was pleased to be able to give her the gift of a new writer to enjoy.

But like so many of his books' protagonists, Mr. Hassler had complications in his life. For the past 15 or so years, he'd been dealing with a steadily worsening Parkinson's-like condition that affected his speech and motor skills. When I first heard of this, I was working as a health editor at the time. About a week after I'd discovered this fact, I'd received a bulletin about new clinical trials looking for people suffering from the very same condition. In short order, I found Mr. Hassler's Web site (maintained by fans and close friends in Minnesota) and passed the information along to the admin, just an FYI from an admirer.

I never expected to hear anything about it, but two days later, I got an e-mail from the man himself, thanking me for the information and my kind words about his work. For the next couple of years, we traded the very occasional correspondence--mostly me providing whatever health information I could glean that might be of use to him, while he was ever gracious, courteous, and kind in his replies. Although we never met or spoke, his messages conveyed a charming affability but also a certain shyness. I got the distinct impression that he was very happy with his level of notoriety and success and would not have welcomed greater prominence on the literary or public stage. He also had a grace and strength of character that I admired mightily, especially in the face of his deteriorating health (and indeed, it appears that it was this health condition that ultimately claimed his life).

He died almost three weeks ago, but of course having just found out, I'm feeling the loss rather keenly today. It's a terrible thing when one of your favorite writers dies. I'll always have his books, of course, but there will never be any new stories about Staggerford, or about Agatha McGee, perhaps his best-known character. I understand he finished yet another novel just before his death (a feat that fills me with awe and respect, considering the man could barely move, let alone type) so I suppose I have one small thing to look forward to.

As for you, if you're in the mood for something great to read, Mr. Hassler's books are still very much in print. I recommend Staggerford for starters, of course, then A Green Journey, its sequel. Simon's Night and The Love Hunter are also very fine--if somewhat different--works, and he's done one or two short story chapbooks.

But if you happen to be one of those lucky readers who shared the secret that was Jon Hassler, you probably already have your own favorites of his work and will be reading them again, comforting yourself with his humor and graceful turns of phrase, and realizing as I am, that the world has lost a great writer and a great storyteller.

Even if it didn't fully realize it.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hassler.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Beautiful. Thanks for this tribute. I, apparently, am not quite as well-read as I thought, but I am now very much looking forward to reading Mr. Hassler's work.
Too much death in life for me lately. (was in Ohio for a week for my grandfather's funeral...)

I'm sorry Hassler's gone, and even sorrier I've not read anything of his before now. It's so sad when the library has its final volume...
I'm one of those who unfortunately never heard of him; thanks so much for the recommendation. I'm putting Staggerford on my shopping list.

It's a sad thing to lose a writer. You never know what worlds they might have shown us had they lived longer.

This makes me so sad. Jon Hassler is one of my favorite authors of all time. I recommend Staggerford to people all the time.

Oh, man.
Thats exactly how I feel about Chaim Potok. I still wonder what would have happened to his character, Asher Lev.
Aw, geez, that's how I felt when Rick Johnson died. He was a writer for CREEM magazine, among others, largely unknown outside of rock critic circles. He was cited by Dave Barry as an early influence. I loved him.

I found out a bit over a year ago that he had died, having spent the larger part of his life since I last read him as manager of a smoke shop in Illinois. He should have been raking in gigantic bucks for writing, not selling cigars.

Believe me, I feel for you on this one. I'll check out his works.
I'll have to look him up. Thanks for the nice tribute.
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