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January 4, 2010

A Cozy Evening with a Good Book

Filed under: Authors, Awards, Literary, MHS press — pennefesm @ 10:41 am

You may be returning to work this chilly Minnesota morning after a long holiday break away. The start of a new year for those in the north ought to be moved to the Ides of March, so that we can ring in this fresh start without frostbite and windchills. But no matter. While February may be for lovers, we think January is for readers. What better way to come home from long work days this week than with plans to curl up with a bowl of hot soup and a good book?

phpOaeudOWe recommend two groundbreaking memoirs for the month, both award winning and heavily praised, and both focused on the people, their work, and a way of life in the communities of Sleepy Eye and Albert Lea in the state’s southern region. Nicole Helget’s The Summer of Ordinary Ways: A Memoir (Borealis Books) is a controversial but brilliantly written “lyrical story of growing up on a Minnesota farm in the 1980s, where her mother verges on insanity, her five unruly younger sisters get underfoot, and death is a familiar part of life . . . The amalgamation of reminiscences appears random until the final piece, in which Helget weaves an account of her child self with that of her adult self, providing context for the previous memories. Pregnant and married at 19, lonely and isolated, Helget tantalizes with a brief peek at her adulthood, but it’s enough, because the glimpses into her younger life so satisfyingly explain who she has become.”— (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

phpIJe8lqThe second is a tour de force, winner of the American Book Award and the Minnesota Book Award: Cheri Register’s Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir (MHS Press). Register is a master at revealing the complexities of her past, as the daughter of a Wilson & Co. packinghouse worker in Albert Lea and the first generation of her family to attend college. Her journey reflects the inner conflict felt by a generation propelled into the middle class but who feel “caught between the blue color values of the communities we left behind and our new status as the ‘rich people’ we used to scoff at.” Register writes in the Prologue, after a scene with her father on her Christmas break home from the University of Chicago: “All I know for certain is that at this moment I realized I had truly left home. I would never have to take a job on the sliced bacon line, which was women’s work in the meatpacking industry, nor would I live in dread of a phone call telling me that my husband was on his way to the hospital in an ambulance, having been hit in the head with a carcass or wounded by an errant blade sharp enough to sever joints and slice through bone. But neither could I leave home behind me entirely. . .”

“Cheri Register, in her lovely, deeply moving memoir, has done more than resurrect a buried history of America’s laboring people; in this instance, the bitter 1959-60 Wilson & Co. packinghouse strike in Albert Lea, Minn. At a time in which the two major party candidates for President appealed to the ‘middle class,’ as though there were no other, Register gives rebirth to an old honored phrase in our daily vocabulary: working class.Yes, she is a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), but to me and, I hope, scores of thousands of readers, she is a Ph.D. (Packinghouse Daughter). This is must reading, especially for the young who have so long been short-changed in the knowledge of labor history.” — Studs Terkel


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