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December 4, 2008

Minnesota’s Humanity in Print

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 11:46 am

Barbara Tuchman coined the phrase, “Books are humanity in print,” and nowhere is this more obvious than the work of two of Minnesota’s literary giants, J. F. Powers and Jon Hassler. So our next two best Minnesota books are…

J. F. Powers. Morte D’Urban. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962.

Jon Hassler. Staggerford. New York: Atheneum, 1977.

Powers and Hassler have much in common so it seems appropriate to mention them together. Both ended up at St. John’s University after interesting starts to their careers and both are thought of as “Catholic” writers although the term seems ridiculously limiting to me. As a bit of trivia, of interest only to a few of us here at the MHS, Powers earliest job was working for the WPA Historic Records Survey in Chicago. When World War II broke out Powers tried for, and was denied, status as a Conscientious Objector. He came to Minnesota to serve time in the Federal prison at Sandstone. He had the Irish penchant for writing short stories [read his "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does"] but became famous with his National Book Award winning novel of a priest in Stearns County, Mort D’Urban. Powers was married to writer Betty Wahl (Rafferty and Co.) who he met at St. Ben’s.

Jon Hassler came to Minnesota in a more traditional way, birth, and experienced life in the southern, urban, and northern parts of the state. He didn’t start writing until he was in his mid forties and Staggerford was his first novel for adults. It concerns life in a fictionalized Park Rapids and introduces characters that turn up in his subsequent work.  His recognizably Minnesota characters, like Powers, are wrought with foibles and pettiness and problems but are likable if not lovable in spite of their shortcomings. One of the smartest things that has been said about Hassler’s writings was from a reviewer who pointed out the unusual ability he has of “making good people interesting” [take that Jonathan Franzen].

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