Days Like Smoke: Jon Hassler’s Memoir

Those of you who are Jon Hassler fans have probably read many of his short stories and books, as have I. When he started writing in the late ’70s, his charming books of small-town midwestern America captured my interest. I could almost recognize some of the characters from my own life. They were eccentric, strong and memorable. I loved each of the new creations Hassler brought to life.

I recall Miss Agatha McGee who is the type of teacher I did not want to be. She was conservative and had many opinions she freely shared. And yet Miss McGee, even though she was one of the earlier characters, has stayed with me—memorable. She figures in most of his works, in fact, especially Staggerford and Green Journey. In fact, Angela Lansbury starred in a movie that was made of Green Journey.

Having grown up in small towns, Hassler seems to have absorbed the “flavor” of them. He recalls the many houses he and his family lived in during his growing up years. He became familiar with the neighbors all around, and he used their characteristics to imbue his own creations in his books. For example, he mentions the “kindly widow who smelled of garlic” or the neighbor in an apartment building who raged out of his apartment in only his underwear chasing Jon who was practicing piano too early in the morning.

My favorite novel was Simon’s Night, which is the story of a retired English teacher who decided, after forgetting many important parts of his life, to move into a private rest home. He soon realizes his mistake, after he gets into many scrapes with the residents. I loved the humor in this book about the aging experience.

Just recently, I became aware that Hassler had not written a memoir, per say, when I received Days Like Smoke as a birthday gift. It was a delightful surprise for me because in reading it, I was taken back to the many reading pleasures I’d had through his books. I’ve even found a few titles that I look forward to reading.

Mary Jane Berger, OSB

Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash