Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir

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Overview

A unique blend of memoir and public history, Packinghouse Daughter, winner of the Minnesota Book Award, tells a compelling story of small-town, working-class life. The daughter of a Wilson & Company millwright, Cheri Register recalls the 1959 meatpackers' strike that divided her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota. The violence that erupted when the company "replaced" its union workers with strikebreakers tested family loyalty and community stability. Register skillfully interweaves her own memories, historical...

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Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir

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Overview

A unique blend of memoir and public history, Packinghouse Daughter, winner of the Minnesota Book Award, tells a compelling story of small-town, working-class life. The daughter of a Wilson & Company millwright, Cheri Register recalls the 1959 meatpackers' strike that divided her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota. The violence that erupted when the company "replaced" its union workers with strikebreakers tested family loyalty and community stability. Register skillfully interweaves her own memories, historical research, and oral interviews into a narrative that is thoughtful and impassioned about the value of blue-collar work and the dignity of those who do it.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This is both a bittersweet memoir of growing up in the 1950s and a history of the 1959-60 strike at Wilson & Co. Meatpacking in Albert Lea, MN. Register (Living with Chronic Illness), the introspective daughter of a union meatpacker, blends lyrical memories of nighttime Christmas shopping with hard-edged descriptions of the killing floor and the picket line. The author attended school with friends who were the children of plant managers but was well aware of the stark divide between blue- and white-collar workers during the 109-day strike and after. Today's world is more complex than the "workers vs. the rich" view she held as a girl, but Register remains loyal to the idea that ordinary people matter. Toward the end of the book she writes, "Any life has meaning which knows its connection to the world." In this memoir, Register rediscovers the bonds that give her own life meaning. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Duncan Stewart, State Historical Society of Iowa Lib., Iowa City Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
McInery
Packinghouse Daughter succeeds admirably...Register uncovers universal themes and recalls essentail personal details of her adolescence...Ultimately Register's book raises important questions about how our society values work.
Ruminator Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936846
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/2001
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: 1ST PERENN
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 514,575
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Cheri Register often tells people her University of Chicago Ph.D. really stands for "Packinghouse Daughter." The opening chapter of Packinghouse Daughter was cited as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 1996. Other excerpts have appeared in Hungry Mind Review, University of Chicago Magazine, and the book Is Academic Feminism Dead? Her work on this memoir has earned a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, and grants from the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Historical Society. Her other books include The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life (formerly titled Living with Chronic Illness: Days of Patience and Passion) and "Are Those Kids Yours?": American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries. She has published many essays in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, and is known for her early work in feminist literary criticism and Scandinavian literature. A writer of creative nonfiction, Register now teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she also lives.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



The Field Trip



In a town without museums or amusement parks, which Albert Lea still was in the late 1950s, elementary school field trips tend to be excursions in industrial technology. Touring the sites where people do their daily work has to serve as both entertainment and education. My classmates and I clucked at baby chicks still wet and sticky and confused in the electric incubators at the hatchery, and watched a row of women atKroger's Produce "candle" freshly laid eggs: lighting the eggs with a lamp from behind, they could see inside and check forembryos. We crowded around the printing press that clanked out the Albert Lea Evening Tribune, made our voices echo in the tall stairwell of a grain elevator, and stood entranced as bottles and cans moved along conveyor belts to be automatically filled and sealed at the Morlea Dairy, the Coca-Cola bottling plant, and the National Cooperatives cannery. We never did visit the mysterious, brick-walled Olson Manufacturing Company on South Broadway, so we could still chime in with the local joke, "Why are there so many Olsons in Albert Lea? They make them here."

These field trips rarely bored us. I assumed my classmates were as fascinated as I was with the notion of work and its secret words and special skills. Mom taught me "dart" and "tuck" and "gusset" and showed me how to use a gauge and a tracing wheel. As I helped Dad with his house projects, I learned "dowel," "trowel," "sillcock," and "miter box." I looked forward to the day when I would master something and speak its language with confidence, but untilthen, I enjoyed peeking in on the work that grown-ups did, and seeing who did what, and where. For the parents of us Lincoln School kids, "where" was likely the Wilson & Co. packinghouse.

We knew that a visit to Wilson's required some degree of maturity, or at least the early signs of adolescence, A hodgepodge of brick buildings and tin and wooden sheds, Wilson's sat in a shallow depression between U.S. Highway 16, our Main Street, and the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul and Pacific railroad line that ran along the weedy shore of Albert Lea Lake, also known as Lower Lake. "The plant," we called it, a name that marked it as the primary local industry. Security fences and a large employee parking lot made it look vast and impenetrable and even a little scary, yet it imposed itself on our lives in ways so familiar and habitual we rarely paid attention. The ceaseless industry of the packinghouse filled the air on the north side of town with a smoky, rancid odor, turned Albert Lea Lake slimy with effluents, alerted us to the passage of time with a steam whistle at noon, blared out livestock prices on our radios, and kept many of us fed and clothed and sheltered. "The Wilson label protects your table" was not only an advertising slogan, but the literal truth. We knew there would be no table to sit at if it weren't for Wilson's.

The closest I had come to the plant was the side gate where we picked Dad up from work on the days Mom needed the car. To reach this gate, we turned down a narrow gravel road that ran alongside another enterprise known as "the foundry" and dead-ended where the railroad tracks crossed the channel connecting Fountain and Albert Lea Lakes. Mom wrestled with the steering wheel of our hulking 1948 Pontiac to pull it over as close as possible to the scraggly willows that hung over the water. We sat silent in the shade, waiting and watching while one man, then a pair of men, and another, most of them swinging barn-shaped, black dinner pails, came streaming out under an arched sign that read Safety First. Some of the men exchanged good-byes with a guard who sat in a booth at the entryway. Finally, we would spot my dad, freshly washed and dressed in khaki pants and a checked shirt. He'd break into a grin as soon as he saw us, and I would climb over the seat into the back.

I had only a vague understanding of how Dad spent his days beyond the Safety First sign. I wasn't sure how to interpret the few clues he carried with him at the end of the day. He might hand Mom a bottle of candy-sweet cough syrup that the nurse in the infirmary had given him, or a jar of drawing salve that pulled stubborn slivers out of your fingers overnight. Some days, he reached into his pocket and tossed me a heavy cylindrical magnet the size of his thumb that had been salvaged from a cow stomach. Farmers shoved these magnets down the animals' throats to catch nails and wires that might otherwise pierce their intestines. A magnet was already an object of mystery, and one that had been inside a cow's stomach was enhanced in value by its association with the grisly and the sacred. Our kitchen drawer at home was filled with butcher knives of thick, discolored metal that Dad bolted between matching hunks of wood in spare moments at work. He said he was a "millwright." For all I knew he made knives for a living.

When the phone rang at lunchtime each day, we knew it would be Dad, yelling above the roar and clatter of machinery, needing us to yell back. He talked loud when he first came home, too, until his ears had adjusted to the quiet. Starting out before dawn and working overtime most days left him tired and sore enough by late afternoon to stretch out on the livingroom floor and fall asleep, regardless of what went on around him. We girls stepped over him to turn on TV or to read in the big chair in the corner where he...

Packinghouse Daughter. Copyright © by Cheri Register. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction
In 1959, the normally quiet town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, jumped into the headlines. A sometimes violent strike at the local meatpacking plant made national news broadcasts, making Cheri Register -- then just fourteen years old-realize that the excitement she'd always assumed existed only in larger, distant cities, was suddenly on her doorstep. The strike divided her hometown yet left her with lifelong loyalties to those who labor, whether well-paid American electricians or indentured children stitching soccer balls in a third-world country. In Packinghouse Daughter, Register blends personal memory as the daughter of a striking worker, oral history interviews, and historical research into what is both a private and public memoir, a chronicle of loss of innocence for a town and for a young girl. Years after Register graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and attained the white-collar lifestyle her parents dreamed of for her, she still closely guards her loyalties to the working-class community she left behind. Register's memoir combines the story of the divisive strike at Albert Lea with a portrait of small-town America in the 1950s, the author's discovery of her own rich family history in the area, and meditations on the dignity of those friends, family, and neighbors who did the essential but awful work of processing cattle and pigs into more familiar cuts of meat. In the process, she brings character and passion to the subject of social class, a topic of conversation that most Americans avoid. And she paints a tender portrait of those who, like herself, "have felt alien, caught between the blue-collar values of the communities weleft behind and our new status as the 'rich people' we used to scoff at." Discussion Questions
  • Before you began Packinghouse Daughter, what was your opinion about the work done by laborers in meatpacking plants like Wilson & Co.? Did reading this book change your point of view?
  • "I read 'Ph.D.' as 'Packinghouse Daughter.'… I walk the line between a feisty fidelity to the people of my childhood and a refined repugnance for the work they do." [pg. 10] Why do you think the author chooses to view her academic achievements in terms of her working-class upbringing? How do these forces come into conflict in her memoir?
  • The author refers to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the famous 1906 novel that chronicles the conditions of a Chicago slaughterhouse, and says that she once aspired to be a "muckraker," or a critic who spurs social reform. Do you think Packinghouse Daughter succeeds in raising concern about the fate of blue collar communities as industries relocate in quest of cheap labor?
  • What techniques of memoir does the author employ in evoking the social milieu of the 1950's in Packinghouse Daughter? Are there any elements that you find unusually effective or poignant?
  • Were you surprised by Governor Freeman's decision to close the Wilson plant to deter violence? What role do you think the government should play in labor disputes?
  • In what way is Packinghouse Daughter a book about class consciousness? What signs does the author interpret as indicators of class? Have notions of class shaped your allegiances, your work, or the way you see the world? About the Author: Cheri Register often tells people her University of Chicago Ph.D. really stands for "Packinghouse Daughter." The opening chapter of Packinghouse Daughter was cited as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 1996. Her work on this memoir earned a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, and grants from the Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Historical Society. Packinghouse Daughter has won a Minnesota Book Award and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Register's other books include The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life (formerly titled Living with Chronic Illness: Days of Patience and Passion) and "Are Those Kids Yours?": American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries. She has published many essays in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, and is known for her early work in feminist literary criticism and Scandinavian literature. A writer of creative non-fiction, Register now teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 9, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    A great book. History is both personal memories and scholarly research in Register's book. Her depiction of life as a teenager in Albert Lea during the 1959 meatpackers' strike is, as she writes,"a native guide to the exotic and endangered world of my childhood."
    Truly an overlooked portion of Minnesota history, this even-handed coverage of actions by Wilson packinghouse, the workers, Governor Freeman and the higher courts is fascinating.
    Entertaining while educating, a truly wonderful book.

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  • Posted December 21, 2010

    Shipped and Received

    Very good condition to me doesn't include a 2 inch rip in the cover. The first thing I did when I received this book was tape the cover and the first two pages so the book wouldn't fall apart. If this was for any other reason but school I would have been more upset.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 3, 2014

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