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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Good, I’m glad I convinced you to read Hassler’s work.
Interesting about that personal Plainview connection you now have. Do you know why she chose Plainview?
Yes. Joe’s (our son-in-law) dad moved there to be with his partner and Joe’s younger brother went with him. When Joe’s dad died in a construction accident, Joe’s mom moved back to Minnesota to be with Joe’s brother. She also became great friends with Joe’s dad’s partner and supported her in her grief. It was an amazing thing.
What a heartwarming example of care and love following tragedy.
Sounds like another great author to follow.
Yes! Have you read Diane Chamberlain’s books? I just discovered her and love love love her novels. I figure you may have read her books.
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.
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 🙂
I’m the same as you, reflecting more on how past place shaped me as I age. I’m glad you’ve picked up some new author ideas.
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.
Thank you for that North of Hope recommendation. I will definitely read some Hassler (again) once I’ve finished the other books in my stack.
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.
I will have to check out Jon Hassler’s books.
Based on comments posted here, lots of people have enjoyed Jon Hassler’s writing.