Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler died last week. His funeral will be tomorrow at the Basilica of St. Mary here in Minneapolis. I found out that a member of my parish, raised Catholic but married to a Lutheran, will be singing at his funeral. It seems that her aunt was married to Mr. Hassler.
The first book I read by Jon Hassler was Grand Opening. I read it in my mid-twenties, I think, and was instantly enchanted. It's the story of a family that moves back to the father's small home town to open a grocery story. So they will have two grocery stores -- the "Catholic" one and the "Lutheran" one. I found Grand Opening to be a kinder, gentler Main Street. There were plenty of critiques of small town small-mindedness and prejudice, but there was an underlying affection that made those critiques much easier to take.
After Grand Opening, I moved backward to Hassler's first novel, Staggerford: one week in the life of a high school teacher. Then I read the novel that I think is still my favorite: Simon's Night, about an old man who checks himself into a nursing home after he makes some unfortunate mistakes in his kitchen. Simon's Night is both poignantly sad and funny, at the same time. I remember that the small Lyric Theatre here in my hometown adapted it for the stage.
The summer I married, I went to a 2-day writing workshop at Mount Carmel Lutheran Camp near Alexandria. Our workshop leader was Jon Hassler. Besides spending a lot of time journaling that weekend, I remember him talking about his Parkinson's disease, his gratitude for his wife, and making jokes about the Catholic at a Lutheran camp. (Why don't you get Garrison Keillor? he asked. We like you better, was the answer.)
I read a review of his life recently that said he was a "middle-brow" author. Probably correct. Also, they noted a book I haven't read, North of Hope, as his best. Now, that goes on my reading list.
He was a lovely example of an artist working out his faith in stories. His themes are universal: love, sin, redemption, sacrifice, loss. He made me wonder again, as I have off and on throughout my life, whether I too can work out my faith in stories.
Maybe, in the end, it is the only way we can work out our faith.