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Let me show you around: The site opens with my blog entries, which I post when the impulse strikes. Just above, running along under the picture, are the pages on my site. You can click on the page names or scroll down for specific sub-pages. The Books page will show you where to buy those still available. Please feel free to contact me at: CheriR (at) CheriRegister (dot) Com.

Cheri’s Books

A Minnesota Book Award!

The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape has won the 2017 Minnesota Book Award for Minnesota Nonfiction, the category for works of nonfiction with subject matter related to Minnesota.

Petersen’s Cafe 2: Herman High Remembered

Herman High is a bum.  A bum isn’t a bad person—just somebody with no place to live and no food to eat, somebody who wears the same clothes over and over and wanders around begging. Herman High doesn’t beg, though. He doesn’t talk at all. He’s “dumb,” like “deaf and dumb,” but not deaf. He turns his head if you sneak up behind him and make noise. I don’t do that.

Herman High is kind of scary, but he won’t hurt us. He’s very tall, and he looks like Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He has black hair and black clothes and a gloomy look on his face, but no beard and no stovepipe hat. Still, I think of Abe Lincoln whenever I see him coming.

He walks up and down the street in Alden and sometimes turns into the restaurant. He doesn’t say anything, naturally, and he doesn’t really look at other people, even if they say, “Hi, Herman,” which makes us kids laugh. It’s his name backwards. One day I decided to try some lemon beer, which is really just pop. I sat at the bar to drink it, but about halfway through, I had to go to the bathroom, so I left it on the bar. When I came back the bottle was empty. Pete and Gar said Herman High had come in and finished it, just like he does with bottles and glasses of beer left standing. Even if it’s only dregs, he picks it up and drains it. I didn’t mind so much that he drank my lemon beer, because it was too prickly on my throat, anyway. I will be more careful with my orange pop and my cream soda.

Sometimes after Herman High drains the stale beer, he walks back to the lunch counter. If Grandma sees him coming and is fast enough, she might dish him up some food or hand him a sandwich. (She calls it a “sanvits.”) He doesn’t like to sit down long, so soon he walks back out, his eyes staring straight ahead. Grandma twitches her head and shoulders a little and mutters “Oh hadda”* or “Goopevas.”** She doesn’t mind so much that he doesn’t pay, because she feels sorry for people who have it hard. It’s the smell he leaves behind, like a musty old coat, that bothers her.

Pete and Gar say that Herman High sleeps in an old run-down car behind the Hazle Hotel. It’s full of boxes, and Pete and Gar have seen him rummaging around in there. Maybe he keeps his stuff in those boxes, but probably not soap or a toothbrush. He must have a razor, but he doesn’t use it very well. His face is sometimes stubbly, but not like it’s on purpose. Maybe he has treasures in those boxes that we can’t even imagine. It’s probably just junk, though. We never see him with anything. He wanders around empty-handed, his arms down stiff at his sides. Herman High is a Mystery Man.

*O Herre (Oh Lord)   **Gud bevare os (God preserve us)

Petersen’s Cafe, Alden, MN

I was unusually lucky to get to spend many days of my childhood in a small-town beer joint. My maternal grandparents, Francis and Alma Petersen, were the owners and proprietors, the bartender and the cook, the rule enforcer and the wise comforter of Petersen’s Cafe. If not the heart of Danish American life in Alden, MN, “the restaurant,” as we relatives so grandly called it, served, at least, as its huffing lungs. The extended family gathered there on Sundays and holidays, and my family lived upstairs with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Kenny for several months while my dad was on strike from his packinghouse job. I learned by watching and listening how a community enfolds the people who huddle at its margins:  the mentally ill, the alcoholic, the lonely, the no longer useful, the disowned, the displaced, the abused and their troubled abusers.  I got to know enough eccentrics to welcome the spice they add to a life that may look dreary and dull to outsiders. I was only eight when Grandpa Frankie’s weakening heart compelled them to sell the place and move into retirement in Albert Lea. (He lived another twenty years!) Yet I remember names and faces and incidents as vividly as only a curious child newly attentive to the world around can.

I have resolved to write some of these memories, first adhering to the limits of memory and including the misunderstandings and false assumptions created by childhood innocence and the long passage of time. Only after I have plumbed my memory will I turn to the historical record to see what I can find there to supplement, challenge, or affirm my memory. I don’t expect this project to become a book, so I will, I think, be content to blog the bits of it here from time to time. I figure I don’t have the life expectancy to undertake a lengthy research project like those my books have required.

Of course I have had to ask myself why I think my fragile recollections of the years 1945 to 1953 in a long since razed and forgotten beer joint/cafe are worthy of literary attention. Here are my answers:

–Because it was a treasured time of childhood, innocent but with an undercurrent of human suffering.

–Because people of little note deserve their dignity as much as the famous do.

–Because I was so fortunate to know eccentricity up close and to see how it is absorbed into a community.

–Because I have not done justice to my mom’s family and my Danish heritage.

–Because so much has been lost and laid flat by commercialism and suburbanization.

–Because Petersen’s Cafe is full of stories.

(P.S.  There will be photos if I can get my scanner to work again. Here is one, of Christmas at the restaurant. I’m on the left, age 2.)

A Near Century of Voting

Today, August 26, 2016, marks 96 years since American women won the right to vote. For the first time in U.S. history, we have a woman running for President with a serious chance of winning; yet her public image has been sullied by decades of misogynistic vitriol. I know it when I see it, because I am of her generation. Suffrage helped launch a century of progress for women, but it hasn’t come easily.

I’ve been thinking all day of my first time celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, 46 years ago now, on the 50th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 1970. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago with a dissertation left to write, I had moved to Minneapolis the previous year and quickly become active in the local women’s liberation movement. The Suffrage anniversary had been declared Women’s Equality Day in Minneapolis, and workshops and other events were planned in several venues downtown.

I took the bus downtown intent on some hearty discussion and vigorous public action. I would start my day at a workshop on Women and Economics, certainly a pressing topic. A panel of women with careers in banking and finance sat at the head of the room, before rows of chairs set up for a listening audience. One speaker offered us investment advice; another read us a pompous speech about how banks benefited women and told us with no embarrassment that her boss, a male bank president, had written it for her. The panel was well-dressed and coiffed and bejeweled, while much of the audience wore cut-off jeans. I began to feel as though I had entered an alternate universe. When the panel invited questions from the floor, I had mine ready:  How could we talk about investing when most women had little money to invest? The average working woman earned only 57 cents to the average man’s dollar. Married women could not get credit in their own names. One of the actions we had planned was for women to line up and submit applications to the city’s department stores for their own credit cards. I remember well how one of the panelists responded to my comments. With treacly condescension, she urged me to be patient. She understood that some young women were eager for that first mink coat, but such rewards took time.

Yes, Women’s Equality Day was actually two celebrations:  One for the respectable businesswomen who had “made it” in a man’s world, and another for those of us envisioning fundamental change in gender expectations. When I walked out of that workshop I looked up toward the observation deck of the Foshay Tower, the city’s tallest building, and saw what I hoped would be there: the banner reading “Women Unite” that a few women from the Twin Cities Women’s Union, a socialist feminist group, had planned to spirit up the elevator and unfurl. By this time, too, other guerrilla theater actions were drawing the attention of people on the street, as well as those emerging from the traditional workshops.

I was looking forward to using lunchtime to invade the local patriarchy by insisting on being served at one of downtown’s Men Only restaurants. My first choice was the Men’s Oak Grill on the twelfth floor of Dayton’s Department Store. It turned out to be everyone’s first choice: a crowd of jubilant women swarmed the elevators and escalators. I tried the Doctors’ Dining Room at the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Building, which was reputed to admit any business-suited man but look skeptically at women claiming to be MDs. That, too, had a long line waiting to be granted admission.

Next on my list was the separate men’s corner of the restaurant in the basement of Powers Department Store. A woman I knew from the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group gestured to me to take the empty chair at her table. The wait staff had apparently been instructed–or just decided–not to offer us any resistance, so lunch was quieter and more routine than we had expected or hoped. I got to talking with the woman across the table from me about what we might do that would be really significant and effective. Gerri Helterline, a N.O.W. member, had been making the rounds of high schools to talk to classes about women’s liberation, and I had been doing the same for the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group. We had made the same observations about classroom dynamics. Some boys snickered and made comments under their breath; some girls giggled and batted their eyelashes at the boys, while a few girls in the front watched us intently, in silence. Afterwards, as others cleared the room, those girls in the front hung around and told us about the sex discrimination they suffered at school.

Gerri and I decided to meet again, to bring a few friends, and talk about how we could get closer to the core of the problem. Our speaking engagements left us feeling like “The Freak of the Week” and we had no way to follow up on their effectiveness. We wanted to talk to teachers and administrators and to the public officials who set policy for K-12 education. Before long we had constituted ourselves the Emma Willard Task Force on Education, and we were conducting teacher workshops, meeting with school administrators, and collating a book of curriculum materials around my dining room table. For years we filled orders for that little book, Sexism in Education, which sold by word-of-mouth all over the English-speaking world.

Somewhere along the way Gerri decided to restore her name to the one she grew up with, her so-called maiden name. She filed an application to the court and paid a fee of $14. Her husband, Dan, accompanied her to court to swear that he had no objections, and I was one of her character witnesses, there to testify that she wasn’t planning to defraud anyone. The judge’s ruling was memorable: “Well, if movie stars can do it, I don’t know why you can’t.” Gerri Helterline left the courtroom as Gerri Perreault. She is one of many unsung feminists who made a huge difference in young women’s lives.

More events scheduled

The blogging bug hasn’t bit yet. Maybe it will when the temperature cools into fall. In the meantime, please check my reading schedule by clicking Public Appearances above.


I’ve been busy doing readings of The Big Marsh, so I haven’t kept my blog up-to-date, nor do I want to feel the pressure to do so. One reader, however, told me that he couldn’t find any information about the new book on my website, so I’ll use this space briefly as a navigational guide. Check the menu that runs along the top of the page. Click “Books” for information about any of my books, including how to buy them if they are still available. Click “Public Appearances” to see if I have any readings scheduled or to listen to an interview archived online. If you’ve come to my website to read the blog, please be patient. I’ll write when the impulse strikes. Thank you for your interest.

The Guardian Angel (part 2 of Shock and Awe)

Once I was discharged from St. Eriks Sjukhus, I continued my journey through the Swedish women’s movement. Karin Westman Berg, who might be called the Mother of Women’s Studies in Scandinavia, welcomed me into her labyrinthine Uppsala apartment, where I would stay many times throughout the 1970s, and invited me to a symposium on the novelist Fredrika Bremer attended by literary scholars from around the world. In Örebro, I slept on silk sheets for the only time in my life–at the home of a Swedish communist. In Göteborg (aka Gothenburg), I read documents at the Women’s History Archives and stayed in a commune where two guys waiting to ship out as crew on a cruise popped popcorn every night–a rare delicacy in Sweden. My favorite memory from that time is waking up to the clomp-clomp of wooden clogs as little kids hurried off to school. I ate blood pudding in Lund, smothered in lingonberry sauce to make it palatable. There I was hosted by the Radical Women’s Group, several of whom were named Birgitta–the Swedish equivalent of the Kathy and Linda and Judy of my generation.

Although it was an exciting, productive, stimulating trip, the fear that I might get sick again at any time never left me. It turned into a stomach-churning anxiety the day I boarded the Malmö to Copenhagen ferry to begin the trip home. In those days, there was one clear option for a graduate student living on a fellowship to afford a trip to Europe: the 21- to 45-day excursion fare on Loftlei∂ir, the Icelandic airline, from New York to Luxembourg. After the ferry crossing, my trip home would include a 19-hour train trip from Copenhagen to Luxembourg, with transfers or layovers in Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), Koblenz, and Trier, followed by an 8-hour flight from Luxembourg to New York, and a 3- or 4-hour flight to Minneapolis. There was simply no allowance for pain, fatigue, or worse, systemic infection.

I sketched out my travel schedule in a letter home, so I know that I bought a sleeping car ticket for the 11:40 p.m. departure from Hamburg–a luxury I generally avoided. Next to my anticipated arrival in Koblenz at 7:48 a.m. I had written “breakfast.” I would board the train again by 8:29. After a restless, breathless night in the sleeping car, that breakfast in Koblenz became one of my most vivid memories, one I like to revisit.

The restaurant at Koblenz was not an intimate room tucked in a corner. It consisted of tables placed out in the open, under the high dome of the railway station. Even though it was prime breakfast time for the passengers on my train, few of them claimed the tables. I took a seat at one toward the center while the tables around me remained empty. I ordered a Tee Komplett, uncertain whether my stomach could handle the bread and pastry that accompanied the tea. I knew I needed to eat in order to have enough energy to lug my suitcases from place to place, but I had grown afraid of my own digestive system.

And then . . . I don’t know how else to say this . . . a middle-aged woman in a neat blue suit appeared at my table. She simply smiled at me and sat down in the chair across from me without a word. The other tables were still empty, yet she chose mine. When the waitress came by, she ordered a Kaffee Komplett. We sat there together, in silence, eating our breakfasts. Whenever I looked up, she was watching me intently, with a kindly smile and a gentle look of concern in her eyes. I could only smile back.

When it was time to board my train, I stood up, smiled a farewell, and walked away. All that quivering anxiety that had troubled me through the night had miraculously washed out the ends of my fingers and toes. I felt calm and confident for the rest of the trip. So who was she? Where did she come from? What did she know or perceive about me? It doesn’t really matter. For those 41 minutes, she served as my guardian angel. And she’s been with me since, not in the flesh, but recalled in memory when I think I can use her help.

Shock and Awe

I have been sick with a respiratory virus for the last week or so, and as a result, I had to postpone a trip to San Francisco. Lying in bed with a headache, as well, has given me pause to recall other times when illness coincided with, or impeded, travel. The time I have chosen to write about yields two subjects for blog posts. This is the first.

I flew to Sweden in the spring of 1972 to do research for my dissertation on the American and Swedish women’s movement’s uses of literature by and about women. I took many solo trips to Sweden before and after that, always hoping that my chronic liver disease wouldn’t suddenly upend my plans or even put my life at risk. One evening I was interviewing the author Gun-Britt Sundström at her Stockholm apartment when the familiar dizziness and pressing abdominal pain began diverting my attention. I finally had to tell her what was going on, and she kindly called a taxi and directed it to the nearest hospital, St. Eriks Sjukhus.

I arrived during obekväm arbetstid (uncomfortable–or inconvenient–worktime) so no doctor was currently staffing the ER. After a painful, anxious wait in near isolation, I was finally admitted to a ward overseen by two doctors, whom the nurses referred to as den mörke (the dark one) and den ljuse (the blond). The dark one was simply a white guy with brunette hair. I had been asked by people whom I had arranged by phone to meet whether I was ljus or mörk, and I had found the question puzzling. I hedged my answer with mitt emellan (in between). Now I figured I was dark by Swedish measures. I learned lots of new vocabulary in the hospital. The technical, Latinate “nasal-gastric suction” becomes, in Swedish, the plain, unvarnished magsugare (stomach sucker).

The most compelling lesson I learned was not linguistic, however. When I began feeling better and was allowed out of bed, I would toddle down to the patients’ lounge to watch TV. One evening I arrived just in time for the news. Another woman was already seated on the couch, so I sat in a chair. We did not speak. Our silence and mutual disregard were not unusual in Sweden, but polite. We sat there together through extensive footage from the Vietnam War. Grenades exploded. Soldiers in jungle camouflage ran for cover. Helicopters settled down and loaded bloody bodies. We said not a word. Swedish TV showed far more graphic images than were permitted on the American networks, but I had gotten used to them. The other woman and I sat passively and took it in, as calmly as if we were each watching the daily news at home.

Then, a breaking news item caused us both to gasp. Someone had stolen into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and taken a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The woman and I exchanged looks of horror:  Indeed, nothing was sacred, not if an immortal work of art could be so recklessly damaged.

All that night in my hospital bed I wondered how we had come to such a pass. How could we watch the news from Vietnam evening after evening and not gasp at each assault on a human body. Why was a 19-year-old American boy or a Vietnam villager of any age of less value to us than a nearly 500-year-old work of art? The Pietà is sublimely beautiful, beyond belief. But each of those wounded bodies was more deeply loved, by someone, somewhere waiting anxiously for news.

With time, expertise, and cautious restoration, the Pietà‘s wounds were healed. My niece, a psychiatrist at a Veteran’s Administration hospital and clinic, is still tending to the damage left from the Vietnam War and those since, which no longer play out on TV.

Leathered and Layered

I recently bought–on a rare shopping whim–a sturdy new wallet to replace my worn combination of zippered billfold, coin purse, and handmade leather cardholder. I always have a hard time discarding trusted old objects, but retiring the cardholder has been particularly difficult. I have been carrying it for 46 years. I bought it from a craftsman named Jonah who worked in a storefront leather shop called The Whale on Cedar Avenue near the corner of Riverside in Minneapolis. 

An All-But-Dissertation Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, I had just moved to town from Chicago’s lively Hyde Park. The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, also called the West Bank, was at the time a center of political and cultural activity. Its old brick bars had become venues for folk music, and its businesses sold East Indian fabrics and smelled of patchouli oil. The Draft Resistance had an office on the street, and I would soon be cranking out Twin Cities Female Liberation Newsletters on a mimeo machine in an old tire warehouse just off the Tenth Avenue bridge.

My UC education was in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures, and I knew that Cedar-Riverside had flourished as a Scandinavian immigrant neighborhood from the 1880s through the turn of the century. Cedar Avenue had been nicknamed Snusgatan, or Snoose Street, and its most impressive building, turreted Dania Hall, had hosted lectures by famous visitors, including authors Björnstjerne Björnson and Knut Hamsun. The old bars date from that period, when they were offset by temperance organizations and gospel missions.

The neighborhood has drawn immigrants and people on the socioeconomic edge since Minneapolis was founded in the 1850s. The bluff above the Mississippi, now dominated by the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, first became an industrial area, the site of two breweries and the city gasworks. Many of the people who labored there settled down below the bluff, in the frequently flooded river flats. A Danish family built the first shanty there, and other Scandinavians followed. When Slovak immigrants joined them, the area became known as Bohemian Flats.

Moving up the bluff from the Flats to Cedar-Riverside was the first evidence of social mobility the early immigrants could claim. As they earned more money–maybe at skilled jobs in the flour mills around the bend in the river–they moved south across Franklin Avenue to Seward, or west to Elliot Park, home to fewer bars and many churches. Over the years, Cedar-Riverside was left to the poor and elderly. When the University expanded across the river, houses and institutions were knocked down, leaving little but the Snusgatan spine. The homes that remained were subdivided into cheap housing for students, leftists, hippies, musicians, and artists. That’s how it was when I found my cardholder, handcrafted and amazingly cheap, at The Whale.

The University was not the only force encroaching on the neighborhood at that time. Interstate Highway 94 had sliced off its southern edge, and Interstate 35W cut a gorge between Cedar-Riverside and Elliot Park crossed only by Washington Avenue. Cedar-Riverside had been turned into an island. A company of idealistic but autocratic real estate developers bought up what was left of the housing stock and set out to replace it with a “New Town in Town,” a complex of high-rise and mid-rise buildings they envisioned mixing social classes and races. Only one section of their plan, Cedar Square West, was ever built. For forty years, it has served mainly as subsidized and low-cost housing for new arrivals to the city, a vertical successor to Bohemian Flats, which is now a commemorative park.

Snusgatan is Little Mogadishu now. Only a few of its bars remain, as gathering places for the old counterculture’s hangers-on. The venerable Cedar Cultural Center, a former movie theater known nationally for its promotion of roots music, has added African musicians to its roster. Sadly, Dania Hall burned down at age 114, just as it was being renovated for use as a Somali community center.

Cedar-Riverside is still the city’s entry point for immigrants. Waves of them have passed through over the last century and a half, along with the artists, musicians, and political activists who thrive on the edges of the city’s mainstream, here on the bank of its river. I love its dowdiness, its well-worn storefronts. The neighborhood is one of those special, layered places where the past is never really cleared away, where, in a summer haze or the drifting snow of winter, you might glimpse the shadow of a horse-drawn trolley or hear the rustle of skirts and whispers of Swedish as domestic workers with a rare evening off pass by.

My cardholder is free of cards now, but like the street where I bought it, it is still rich with memories.

Official announcement

Yesterday I returned page proofs to the managing editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Today the press’s spring catalog arrived in the mail. It’s time for the official announcement of my forthcoming book:  The Big Marsh.

Click on the link for all the information about it. Here, in the meantime, is the cover: