Jon Hassler

(Jump down to read a review of The Staggerford Murders)

"The New Woman"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 13, 2007)

"'You must not lose your range of motion,' [the therapist kept saying].  She meant if I gave up certain movements of my arm I might not ever get them back.  So she had me raising my arm and lowering it, working around the pain to make sure I could still do it.  Well, I believe 'range of motion' applies to our psyches as well as our bodies…If we shut down parts of our thinking, we'll never get them back."

The New Woman by Jon Hassler

With warmth, gentle humor, irony, and repeating characters, Jon Hassler has kept readers fascinated with life in Staggerford, Minnesota, for nearly thirty years.  Friendships, loyalties, gossip, and jealousies—all the raw material of smalltown community activity—come to life in the relationships among the characters, many of whom have been featured throughout the twelve Staggerford novels.  The 87-year-old grande dame of Staggerford, Agatha McGee, formerly a teacher at St. Isidore's school, has finally moved out of her house along the river and into the Sunset Senior Apartments, where she finds the closeness of her neighbors to be stifling, at times.

When her diamond brooch turns up missing, Agatha looks carefully at her neighbors, trying to figure out who might have taken it.  As always, Agatha's opinions reflect her strict world view—she is appalled at John Beezer's eating habits, at Big Edna's crassness, at the decline in grammatical speech, and at the general loss of civility she remembers from the old days in Staggerford, but she cannot imagine who might have taken her brooch. 

When she reads a twenty-year-old magazine about an MX missile, ready to fire, which the US government once mounted on a train and moved around the country each night (so it would be ready to fire and so that enemies could not find it), she tells her best friend Lillian, who decides they need an "MX box," into which each resident would put his/her valuables to be moved around the complex in the care of a different resident each night.  Hassler's gentle, wry humor blossoms into dark humor here when the box is "misplaced" by a forgetful resident—everyone knows where it is, but no one knows how to retrieve it, and the resulting farce is black humor at its hilarious best. 

Plot is not Hassler's primary concern as he recreates the lives of Staggerford's elderly residents.  His characters are believable, and their dialogue is pitch-perfect, and his elderly readers (especially) will undoubtedly see themselves in the characters.  Events are realistic and often poignant. Two long-time residents die.  Two young men, having kidnapped the daughter of one of them, leave the child with Agatha, who discovers the Mr. Rogers TV show and admires his way with children.  Her visits to the local school leave her appalled at the lack of order, but her decision to set up a support group at the apartment complex meets with enormous success. 

No world-shaking events occur here, but Staggerford is not a world-shaking community—just a typical Midwestern, middleclass town observing the commonplaces of everyday life.  It is these commonplace observances—and celebrations of the lifestyle they represent—that make Hassler's novels so winsome, nostalgic,  and beloved.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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"The Staggerford Murders and Nancy Clancy's Nephew"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 27, 2005)

"Cal'donie, she was a wise old dame—for a waitress. I mean that's all she ever was, was a waitress, until I come along and took her up into the leisure class. That's when she really blossomed out. Why, when she become a full-time garbologist's wife, she took to culture like a cockroach to syrup. You never seen nobody that loved the printed word the way Cal'donie did. From the day she moved in with me till the day before she died she kept an up-to-date file of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune."

The Staggerford Murders by Jon Hassler

No matter where you come from, Jon Hassler's Staggerford feels like home, and his characters like the old friends (and nemeses) you probably grew up with. With an unerring eye for the universally mundane, and an ear for the commonplaces we all expect in conversations with old friends, Hassler brings Staggerford, Minnesota, to life in a dozen or so novels. With warmth, gentle humor, irony, and repeating characters, Hassler recreates long-standing friendships and loyalties, along with the gossip, resentments, and long memories which make life in any small town a community activity.

In his latest offering, The Staggerford Murders, Hassler presents two novellas about Staggerford with very different tones. The first, "The Staggerford Murders," is a farce of the first order. A letter appears in the Staggerford newspaper from Penny Jean Nichols, from Fresno, California, asking for information about her mother, Blanche Nichols, who disappeared from Staggerford nine years ago. Her father had been murdered in front of the local movie theater at that time, and her mother vanished without a trace. Penny Jean herself has been in California for the intervening years, getting some sort of "treatment."

The "detectives" in this case are Grover, the 81-year-old desk clerk at the run-down Ransford Hotel, and his two friends, Dusty Luuya, a resident who is markedly limited in his abilities, and Ollie Luuya, his nephew, a former derelict, now a born again preacher, ordained with mail order degree. The after-the-fact investigation of the murder of Neddy Nichols, a "pillar of society," by Grover, Dusty, and Ollie, unearths a series of shocking allegations against the man, and soon they, Penny Jean, and her husband, who have come to Staggerford to visit, are looking closely at the man her mother married immediately after her father's murder, a man who himself remarried soon after the disappearance of the former Mrs. Nichols.

Far more absurd than the typical Hassler novel, this farce features natural and accidental deaths, the "murders" of bodies already dead, religious visions, an accidental death during a baptism, a murder trial for the murder of a dead body, and the absurdity of a wife not attending her husband's murder trial because it interferes with her bowling league's tournament. Hassler has fun with this one, piling irony upon irony and twist upon twist as the murder investigation reveals the dark underbelly of humanity, even in Staggerford.

The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew could not be more different in tone. This sensitive character study focuses on W. D. Nestor, a seventy-two-year-old turkey farmer whose beloved wife Lucille has died a few years ago. Kermit Kilbride, married to W. D.'s daughter Viola, is working on the farm, while Sonny, W. D.'s eighteen-year-old son is missing, having run away many years before. Gradually, through vivid word pictures, the life of W.D. unfolds, detailing his marriage to Lucille while she was still in high school, their snowbound wedding night, and their six month secret from her aunt Velma. Their content, but uncommunicative, marriage unfolds in detail.

W.D.'s late-in-life befriending of a young boy who is the poorest player on the local Little League team, reveals that this child, Kevin, who is W. D.'s emotional substitute for Sonny, is the son of Ollie Luuya from the previous "Staggerford Murders" novella. As time passes, and W. D.'s relationships come and go, time takes its toll on W. D., until, at eighty-two, he visits his Aunt Nancy, who is almost one hundred. Through this visit, the reader sees the story becoming that of an old man assessing at his life just before his death.

These two novellas, one hilariously funny and one sadly introspective, separately emphasize the two characteristics which make Hassler's novels come alive. His characters are often humorous and always believable, their dialogue pitch perfect. His emphasis on community dynamics shows Hassler's sensitivity to and love for the subtleties of small town life, even as he may be poking fun at some of its absurdities. At the same time, Hassler details moments of touching sadness as he shows the high and low points in the lives of ordinary men. Those who love Hassler will undoubtedly enjoy these two novellas, but new readers are urged to start with one of Hassler's early novels, such as Staggerford, in order to enjoy this book within the context of Hassler's complete works. Sensitive, full of wry moments, and realistic in the vision of small-town America, Hassler's novels are among literary America's best kept secrets.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews


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About the Author:

Jon HasslerJohn Hassler was born in 1933 and grew up in Minnesota. He graduated from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota. After college, Hassler became a high school English teacher and taught at public high schools in three different Minnesota towns while attending graduate school at the University of North Dakota and eventually earning his M.A. in English in 1960. During those years he also married and became a father of three. The marriage ended in divorce some twenty-five years later but Hassler has remarried.

Hassler did not begin writing seriously until he was nearly 40 years old. For five years, he polished his skills, submitting short stories to literary journals. While 85 of his early submissions met with rejection, six were accepted for publication. It was one of those published stories that led to an agent's offer of representation.

After receiving his M.A., Hassler became a college teacher, first at Bemidji State College, then at Brainerd Community College (now Central Lakes College), and finally at St. Johns, his alma mater. He is retired as Regents Professor Emeritus. Although diagnose with Parkinson's Disease over ten years ago, he continues to write everyday.

In 2000, Hassler was awarded the Distinguised Minnesotan Award. Hassler is also the recipient of the 2000 Flanagan Prize, an annual award presented by the Minnesota Humanities Commission for lifelong contributions to the arts in Minnesota. Since 1993, he has been awarded four honorary doctor of letters degrees, the most recent from the University of Notre Dame.

Jon and his wife, Gretchen, divide their time between Melbourne Beach, Florida, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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