Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Plainview: Jon Hassler’s “the village in the corn” June 15, 2022

A portion of the Plainview mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

LAND. PEOPLE. ARTS. COMMUNITY. Those words theme a public mural stretching across the Plainview Area Community and Youth Center in the heart of this southeastern Minnesota small town.

The mural graces a wall of the community center, across the street from the former Jon Hassler Theater. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

I remember the mural from my last visit here in 2013. I appreciate this public art now as much as I did then, for art can reveal much about a place.

In the heart of the community, the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, now closed. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

While Plainview has lost some of its “arts” character with closure of the Jon Hassler Theater and Rural America Arts Center, it will always claim title (along with Staples) as the boyhood home (s) of noted Minnesota writer Jon Hassler. He moved to Plainview with his parents at the age of 10, remaining there until shortly after his 1951 high school graduation.

Hassler’s Grand Opening is based on Plainview.

Hassler, one of Minnesota’s most-beloved authors, focused his fiction on small town life. That includes Grand Opening, a novel based on Plainview. As in real life, the main character’s parents buy a run-down grocery store in rural Minnesota.

Source: Afton Press

While I have not yet read Grand Opening, I just finished Days Like Smoke, A Minnesota Boyhood. This is Hassler’s memoir, a manuscript published by Afton Press in 2021, many years after the author’s 2008 death. Edited by friend Will Weaver, another well-known Minnesota writer, this slim volume offers insights into Plainview, into Hassler’s experiences there and how that shaped his writing. He credits his parents’ Red Owl Grocery Store as the training grounds for his writing, the place where he acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist. In that grocery store, Hassler stocked shelves, ground coffee, interacted with and observed customers, and more.

The land (farming) is integral to the economy of Plainview, which is surrounded by corn and soybean fields. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

This sentence in Hassler’s memoir is so telling of the influence Plainview had on his writing: I see the villagers passing along the checkout counter like the cast of characters they eventually turned out to be in my novel about this village in the corn. I love that phrase, “village in the corn,” for it fits agriculturally-based Plainview. The community is home to food processors, Plainview Milk Products Cooperative and Lakeside Foods, and celebrates Corn on the Cob Days each summer. Farming centers the local economy.

Two of the people featured on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It’s the people, though, including the characters, who truly define community. And Hassler shares plenty from Plainview, where he lived across from the stockyards for awhile, tried to derail a train, played high school football for the Gophers, watched endless movies at the Gem Theater, bloodied the nose of a third grader, sat at the bedside of his dying 11-year-old friend, biked to the bluffs along the Whitewater River to camp and fish, served as an altar boy…

The mural includes a faith-based dedication to Pauline Redmond. She co-owned the North Country Anvil Magazine/Anvil Press with her husband, Jack Miller. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

In his memoir, Hassler remembers St. Joachim’s Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church standing as sentinels of the soul at opposite ends of Main Street. That’s such an insightful visual. Hassler valued his Catholic upbringing and faith throughout his life. But he also admits in his memoir to the strong current of religious animosity running under the surface of daily life in the village of my youth between Catholics and Lutherans. This comes as no surprise to me, growing up in rural Minnesota with the same denominational tension.

People also define place as noted on the mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

It was that undercurrent—specifically the defeat of Hassler’s father in a school board election—which ultimately caused Hassler’s parents to leave Plainview and return to Staples. He writes: I, newly graduated from high school, loved Plainview too dearly to follow them.

The interior entrance to the Jon Hassler Theater, photographed during a 2013 visit to Plainview. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo November 2013)

Hassler’s love for Plainview endured, long after he left to attend college, then to teach, then to write and then to retire in 1997 after 17 years as writer-in-residence at Saint John’s University. Visit Plainview today and you get a strong sense of the place that shaped this writer. While businesses and people have come and gone, at its core, this remains “the village in the corn.”

TELL ME: Have you read any of Jon Hassler’s 12 novels or his nonfiction? I’d love to hear your take on his writing and what books you recommend.

Please check back for more posts from Plainview next week. Be sure to read my previous posts on Plainview published this week.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


18 Responses to “From Plainview: Jon Hassler’s “the village in the corn””

  1. Ruth Says:

    I told you I’d accompany you to Plainview, Audrey so here I am. My sister recommended Jon Hassler to me years ago and I read a couple but I think I’d like to read more of his writing after reading your blog.

    • Thank you for joining me, Ruth. Be sure to read Larry Gavin’s comment on Hassler books/stories he recommends. Larry is a retired Faribault High School English teacher, a gifted writer, poet and friend.

      I’ll have more posts from Plainview next week. I’m taking a brief break from this series as there are a few timely topics I need to write on and publish.

  2. I haven’t read any of Hassler’s work but have long heard about him. This is the summer to read him! As a side note, Plainview is where my son-in-law’s mom landed when she returned to Minnesota about 4 years ago.

  3. Sounds like another great author to follow.

  4. Larry Gavin Says:

    Jon and a guy I taught with grew up next to each other in Plainview, and were friends until they had a falling out after college and quit corresponding. After a couple years of trying, I convinced the guy I taught with to make contact with him. They reestablished that friendship right up until Jon’s death.

    I would strongly suggest reading the short story “Rufus at the Door.” In it a health class makes a field trip to Faribault State Hospital. In later versions of the story it was changed to Rochester for some reason.

    His best novel is “Love Hunter,” “Staggerford “a close second.

    • Thanks for your recommendations, Larry. Once I finish the stack of books I currently have, I’ll pick up some Hassler books.

      How wonderful that you could convince your friend to reconnect with Hassler following their falling out.

  5. Roots and wings, right! As I have gotten older I find I reflect more on my growing up and how growing up in a small town shaped me in many ways. Another author for me to check out to and I see a few more recommendations of authors within the comments too. Happy Exploring, Happy Reading, Happy Creating – Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  6. Bernadette Arlene Thomasy Says:

    I just discovered Jon Hassler, after his memoir book, Days Like Smoke, came out. I wasn’t able to get that book but I obtained North of Hope, which I totally enjoyed. The story of a priest who loves a woman he met in high school but each go their separate ways meeting again 30 years later. A beautiful story set in a northern Minnesota small town with realistic, fascinating characters, including an elderly priest called “Loving Kindness” because that is what he always preaches about. I’ve heard Staggerford is among his best, but I enjoyed North of Hope. Much insight into the life of a priest.


    I really enjoyed Days Like Smoke as it brought back memories of Hassler’s novels. So it was fun to see your photos of Plainview. I read the novels back closer to when they were published and can’t say which I’d recommend other than all of them. I looked up the list and was reminded of the feisty Agatha McGee character. I think those all take place in Staggerford which I remember as being so true to small town life. I may have to reread them!

    • I am with you in needing to reread Hassler. I’ve read one or two of his novels, but it’s been way too long for me to recall which. I’m glad you enjoyed Days Like Smoke also. Thank you for appreciating my photo tour of Plainview. More posts will be forthcoming next week.

  8. Valerie Says:

    I will have to check out Jon Hassler’s books.

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