Jon Hassler fans — and they are legion — will jump right out and buy his re-issued novel, “Simon’s Night.”
It’s one of my favorite Hassler outings, probably because I share some traits with his hero Simon Shea. I, too, was an English teacher, I, too, am old and prone to arriving at unfortunate judgments.
Simon has retired from teaching and is worried that his mind is going bad, so he checks into an old folks home, where he runs into all manner of eccentrics in the Hassler mode.
He comes to learn that his attempt to safeguard himself is no way to live properly and finally sets out to get right with his life. (That’s where Simon and I part company.)
Simon’s adventures are grand, especially when he makes his way to the Twin Cities (always a Hassler hoot) and gets stuck at a Mall of America-type shopping center, has an hilarious encounter with a Twin Cities book review editor (not me).
And to top it all off the new Nodin press edition ($19.95 paper) has some wonderful new material at book’s end. It’s Hassler’s “Simon’s Night” Journal, recently edited by his old friend and colleague, Joe Plut, who knows more about Hassler than Jon probably did.
Many of Hassler’s books were inspired by his journals, letters to friends.
I once asked Jon what inspired him to write “The Love Hunter,” which was optioned by Robert Redford, who, unfortunately got too old for the part.
The book concerns a hero who takes his son on a duck hunting trip to Canada. “I kept a diary,” Jon replied, “about a duck hunting trip I took to Canada with my son.”
Marv Lansing, former Eau Claire school superintendant, wrote a fine memoir of growing up in River Falls during the Great Depression, in which he opened by saying “Some folks say they don’t remember it as the Great Depression because we were all in the same boat,” or words to that effect.
Marv continued buy writing “My family was so poor we knew we were in the Great Depression.
A new book from the University of Iowa Press strikes the same kind of chord. It’s “Others Had It Worse,” by Vetra Melrose Padget Covert and her grandson Chris Baker (University of Iowa Press, $17.50 paper).
Before grandmother died in 1990, Baker asked her to write her recollections of growing up between 1920 and 1929.
She passed on to him a 29-page memoir on yellowed paper.
He has done a marvelous job of interpreting her brief jottings, setting them in a larger historical context and then letting her tell the rest of the story by reprinting the jottings as she wrote them along with photographs from the family album.
Growing up in Davis County, Iowa, before the Great Depression was no picnic because farmers were already broke.
To make matters worse, grandmother’s father Wilmer was a boozer and a moonshiner, who made matters worse.
It’s a very plaintive book and reminds us of the famous Great Depression photography project, which pictured the poor and forgotten, like Dorothea Lange’s famous picture of the dust bowl lady, called “Migrant Mother.”
Only in the current book, we have text, not just imagination to rely on. Vetra tells it like it was. She wrote that that the family house had a hold in the roof and one on the floor “so big you could have throwed a cat through them.”
And alcohol: “There was always old drunken fox hunters that was laying around there. There was George Cruickshank. He drank like a fish. He would lay around on the floor or any place and pass out. He would wet all over him self from neck down. When he came awake he just wore the same old clothes. Maybe he would be there several days. The smell was strong.”
And school: “Leola Bales our teacher one yr gave me a Cupie doll and I cried because that was the first real doll I ever had. I kept that doll for several years after I was married. I loved that doll.”
And yet, she endured and wrote to her grandson Chris Baker that “others had it worse.”
Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.