Minnesota Book Award. American Book Award. A BookSense 76 pick.
A unique blend of memoir and public history, Packinghouse Daughter tells a compelling story of 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 thoughtful, impassioned narrative about the lasting impact of social class, and the value and dignity of blue-collar work.
“Cheri Register’s prose turns grit into diamonds.” Jim Hightower
NEWS: Winona State University has chosen Packinghouse Daughter as its Common Book for 2011-12.
The New York Times Book Review mentioned the Winona State news on its August 18 podcast, probably because Winona State is Michele Bachmann’s alma mater.
Packinghouse Daughter in the Classroom
When I turned in the final manuscript of Packinghouse Daughter to the Minnesota Historical Society Press early in 2000, I expected the memoir to be my little regional publication, of interest only to readers who grew up working-class in the Upper Midwest. So when I heard that an order for multiple copies of the hardcover had come in from a college instructor in Indiana, Pennsylvania even before the book’s official publication, I was mystified. Helen Sitler, who taught English composition at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a public institution in a depopulating industrial and agricultural region of southwestern Pennsylvania, had received an Advance Review Edition from a friend who ran an independent bookstore. She took a look at it and thought it might be just the thing to prompt her students, many of them the first in their families to go to college, to write about their own lives. I contacted her later to see how it went, and she said she was pleased to read written appreciations of parents, rather than complaints. She said the book gave her students a context in which to value their parents’ work and understand the stresses their families experienced as jobs disappeared.
Occasionally I’ll go online to look for course syllabi that list Packinghouse Daughter as required reading. Once I sent an email query to the instructors I could identify to ask how they used the book and how it worked. I was especially curious to know what students at a university in Hawaii might make of a memoir about meatpacking in Minnesota. The teacher sent me their papers! I read about Japanese and Korean immigrant grandparents who had labored long hours in pineapple fields and canneries. And some students admitted to reconsidering their fondness for that Hawaiian delicacy, Spam. (I would name the teacher and the university, except that my files are in disarray after an ice dam on the roof sent water leaking through the ceiling of my study. When I come upon it, I’ll add that information here.)
I’ve had the privilege to speak to college classes about the genesis of the book and to answer students’ questions. I like to open with a census to find out what portion of the class comes from blue-collar families, from food processing towns, from livestock farms, etc. I can see that we are a declining breed. I’ve done this as close to home as the University of Minnesota (in History, English, Women’s Studies, American Studies) and as far away as the University of Pittsburgh, where I spoke to Bill Scott’s class on Working-Class Literature. I’ve also addressed groups of teachers, for example: labor educators with the AFL-CIO and a labor history conference of the California Federation of Teachers. I love being in front of a class of college students, fielding their wide-ranging questions and hearing their family stories. Without fail, someone–maybe a couple of folks–will approach me shyly afterwards, a little tearful, and tell me privately how concerned they are for their parents’ well-being or their town’s survival, and how ambivalent they feel about leaving home for the privilege of becoming educated, knowing it’s their parents’ dream, but that it will also remove them from their parents’ culture. I feel honored to be told.