For more than six decades, the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn Hartley has mesmerized and perplexed the La Crosse community and beyond, sparking a book, CNN iReport and continued news coverage.
Now, the case is being re-imagined by author Rick Harsch in “Voices After Evelyn,” the first novel to be published by the Midwest-centric Maintenance Ends Press.
“It’s the case in La Crosse crime,” said Harsch, 58, of Izola, Slovenia, and formerly of La Crosse. “It seemed to resonate through the whole town.”
On Oct. 24, 1953, Hartley, 15, a junior at Central High School, vanished from the Hoeschler Drive home of UW-La Crosse professor Viggo Rasmussen, whose 20-month-old baby she was caring for. After Evelyn failed to check in with her parents at 8:30 p.m., Hartley’s father discovered the baby sleeping, a stepladder propped against an open basement window of the Rasmussen home, and Evelyn’s glasses, shoes and blood on the floor. Police dogs lost her scent two blocks away, where she was presumably transferred to a car.
Later, bloodied girls undergarments, as well as men’s shoes and a blood-stained jacket of disparate sizes, were found near Coon Valley, leading police to suspect there were two abductors.
The community rallied, with thousands searching by foot while the National Guard and Air Force flew over wooded areas and boaters covered the river. A body was never found.
Harsch, a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction published in English, French and Slovene, became familiar with the saga in the 1980s. Despite breaking out with a series of “meta-noir” novels — The Driftless Trilogy — he wanted to explore the true crime genre, albeit with some creative license, after a conversation with a La Crosse friend about the Hartley case.
“It was too big of an event not to (write about it),” said Harsch, who also teaches maritime English. “It had all these elements to it. People all had their theories.”
In 2001, Harsch completed the manuscript and shared it with Todd Kimm, a fellow participant at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the novel failed to find a publisher, sitting dormant for the next 16 years until Kimm, a former newspaper editor and regional magazine editor, created Maintenance Ends Press in honor of his late brothers Brent and Barry, the latter of whom produced Midwest-based films. The publishing company, an imprint of Ice Cube Press, is more than halfway through its fundraising goal of $10,000 and will “offer a kind of off-center, adventurous, wild take on the Midwest, definitely something that goes against stereotypes and expectations,” Kimm said.
“The Midwest is kind of a neglected region in my opinion ... this nebulous cipher of a region,” Kimm said. “I thought (‘Voices After Evelyn’) would be a good inaugural book for us. It’s set in the Midwest, Rick is a Midwest author and this book really hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved. I think people will really be interested in it ... it evokes the atmosphere of La Crosse at that time and just kind of the loss of innocence.”
“It was the theme of the wolf coming in and taking the baby. La Crosse (wanted) to exonerate itself,” said Harsch, a UW-L graduate and proprietor of Jack’s Used Books in downtown La Crosse from 1985 to 1987. “This was the turning-point crime when (people realized) La Crosse is no longer a nice, safe city — it’s becoming what the rest of the country is becoming. (Before) you didn’t lock your doors. As soon as Evelyn went, people would cover their windows with newspaper if they didn’t have drapes.”
Harsch interviewed locals who were alive when the Hartley abduction occurred, taking in story after story about the search, the suspects and La Crosse life in general in the 1950s, using their accounts to write the perspectives of fictional townsfolk and placing them in real locations such as the former Windmill Bar to create a “semi-surreal but accurate” tome centered on the aftermath of a shocking incident. As in his Driftless Trilogy, Harsch gives each character a distinct and at times darkly comic personality, from a man carrying on a relationship with a teen girl half his age to a feisty young woman with a penchant for records by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps.
Harsch opens the book in 1989, when a tip came in that the car used to take Evelyn was buried on a Pickwick, Minn., property, one of many false leads that poured in over the decades.
“I didn’t need to make up much, I just had to put people in this place,” Harsch said. “Most of what’s relevant in this case is in the novel.”
Harsch explores the extreme search tactics authorities employed, which included administering lie detector tests to every student and teacher at Central High School and checking the trunks of all vehicles, tagging them with a sticker once cleared.
“One guy I talked to said he was really proud to get an OK sticker on his car — ‘My family is clear, I didn’t kill her!’” Harsch recounted.
Harsch doesn’t presume to shed new light on the case with his book, slated for release in fall 2018, but hopes its long-awaited publication brings new attention to the city and Maintenance Ends Press.