That’s all I can think of these past few days as I’ve been rereading North of Hope, my favorite of his novels. Hassler lived in Minnesota his whole life, and taught at Saint John’s University in Collegeville from 1980 until his retirement. He was born in 1933 like my father-in-law, and they were classmates and roommates at St. John’s, graduating in 1955. In fact, seeing this picture at left, it always surprises me how much he looks like my father-in-law.
North of Hope, written in 1990, is, I believe, his best work, and a great American Catholic novel. I first read it when Hassler died in 2008, and since then I’ve come to know this place much more deeply. I’m surprised by how little I knew when I wrote a reflection about him for this blog in 2008. Reading the novel now, I see that Hassler put into it everything he knew. The novel is relentlessly chronological, beginning with the protagonist Frank Healy as a high school student in 1950, meeting the girl of his dreams, Libby Girard. Frank’s mother died when he was ten, and the priest’s housekeeper told Frank that her last words were this: “I want Frank to become a priest.” But most of the novel is set later, when Father Frank Healy asks to be transferred back to his hometown and the dramas– personal and professional– he faces there.
The town where the novel is set, Linden Falls, is an amalgamation of all Hassler’s Minnesota towns, but especially the Brainerd area and the Bemidji area. The characters’ adult lives are intertwined with the lives of Native Americans, as in Bemidji. One of the towns the high school football team plays is Gopher Prairie, the fictional name of Sauk Centre in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Linden Falls also plays (and loses to) teams in Staggerford, another of Hassler’s fictional towns. Frank lives along the Badbattle River, based on the Sauk River, which flowed through my front yard in Cold Spring and flows through other Hassler novels as well.
I’ve been rereading this book in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo), which is November. My friend Grant Faulkner, who also got me to write 100-word stories, runs the thing. To date, according to their website, there are 39,733 people signed up to write novels in November 2013. Grant had an excellent article on the New York Times blog this week. It might make you want to write a novel, too! He also said he cracked up when I told him “I already spent five years writing a bad novel in the 1990s. It would be good to get it over with in one month.” But of course, I want to write a better-than-good novel. And I wish I could ask Jon Hassler some things.
But since I can’t, I’m trying to learn from his book instead. And the first thing I know is that I can’t structure my novel this way. There are three time periods for my novel: 1956, 1970-74, and 2004. I was born in 1964. I arrived in Central Minnesota in 2005. I am an outsider here and, in many ways, I have not lived any of the story I want to tell. In other words, it is fiction.
I don’t know the things that Hassler knew, about candling eggs and the relationship between the egg man and the grainery owner, how dealing in eggs feminized you, how the egg man didn’t have his own chickens but bought eggs from all the women in the surrounding area.¬† I didn’t grow up in the time of the Latin Mass in a place where everyone was taught by nuns. Still, that’s part of the story I want to tell.
But being an outsider allows me to see clearly, perhaps, or at least to choose what is interesting to me and might be interesting to other readers. I know lots of little things, because this is a very storied place. And so I will have to stay in 2004, or 2008, and dip back into those two pasts, and hopefully I know enough to tell a good story and tell it true.
As you can tell, I have a bit of a head start on this novel. I have 10-20 files in my computer, about 100 pages, all rippling out to dead ends or high cliffs. And it is time to sit down and write straight through. I don’t know where it will go. But I do know my protagonist, and I know some of her friends. Last night my husband asked me if I had a model for my main character. I said: “Oh, she is me.” He was surprised. I said, “She’s definitely me. Even though her life doesn’t much resemble mine.”
I think it’s a good sign.
During November, I’m not going to take a break from the blog, but I’m going to write shorter pieces and almost entirely about this writing process. Wish me luck.