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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

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:



What’s the Copy-Edit?

My worklife in 2015 has been measured out in deadlines and delivery dates. First came the submission deadline for my book manuscript, March 15. That was followed by a long wait for the developmental edit, the editor’s comments on storyline, structure, flow, narrative voice, and other “macro” issues. It arrived July 8 with another deadline, September 1, for my revision. The revised version of the manuscript was then passed on from the executive editor to the managing editor, who sent it out for copy editing. I got the result November 5. For most of November I put off both fun and obligations “until the copy-edit is done.” Only after turning in my responses to the copy-edit just before Thanksgiving did I realize that people probably thought I was copy editing my own manuscript. What is “the copy-edit,” anyway?

The copy-edit is done by a professional copy editor, a meticulous reader trained to see the minutiae of writing: placement of commas, the need for a semi-colon, consistency in spelling and capitalization, precise use of vocabulary, etc. Because rules about such minutiae are not always absolute, this indispensable person has either memorized a certain style, an established set of guidelines, or has the skill to find answers quickly in a style book. Styles differ, but consistency always matters.  The copy editor on my book Beyond Good Intentions removed the extraneous commas after adverbs and prepositional phrases that opened sentences such as “Recently,” (see my first paragraph) or “After the snow had stopped falling, we went out to shovel the sidewalk.” In deference to her judgment I got into the habit of skipping those commas, as I just did in the opening of this sentence. That made extra work for the copy editor of The Big Marsh, who put them all back in. Neither is right or wrong. It’s a matter of style.

My job was to look over the freshly copy-edited manuscript and either accept or reject each of the changes the copy editor made. The author does get the final word, unless the managing editor has good reason to overrule either author or copy editor. I generally accepted the changes in punctuation. I tend to punctuate for breath, as though I’m reading the manuscript aloud. That makes for an excess of commas, which my copy editor dutifully deleted. I am grateful to copy editors for bearing the burden of punctuating correctly and for suggestions that save me from embarrassment. I still remember, fondly, the copy editor who cured me of a tic, the overuse of “very” to intensify adjectives.

Meticulous as they are, copy editors inspire authors, too, to take greater care in writing and revising. By daring to rewrite our precious prose, they make us more deliberate in our word choices. Before we reject their changes, we stop and think about why our choices matter. Here, for readers whose eyes have not yet glazed over, are some examples from my recent experience.

The copy editor’s take on “may” and “might” was different from mine. He chose “may” for present tense and “might” for past tense, a simple rule that makes consistency easy to achieve. My search through several usage guides showed that the distinction between the two words can be more subtle than that. I opted for subtlety. Since the history I am writing is not thoroughly documented, I sometimes had to speculate or conjecture about what “may” have happened. What “might” have happened sounded either conditional (what might have happened if such-and-such were the case) or more certain than I felt, as though just a bit more evidence would show that what might have happened did happen.

Sometimes my decision about the copy editor’s correction was meant to preserve historical accuracy.  For example, he broke the compound word “buttermaker” into “butter maker,” in accordance with his style book’s general rules. I use the word to denote an occupation that arose after the invention of the cream separator, when farmers in Freeborn County, Minnesota, began organizing cooperative creameries. The word that shows up in newspaper accounts of dairying at the turn of the last century is the compound “buttermaker.”

Some quibbles are about word quality.  The copy editor questioned my use of the word “spinster,” which is often used pejoratively. I enjoy reclaiming old words for women that originally had positive or neutral connotations. A “spinster” was not an abject, unloved “old maid,” but an unmarried adult woman, a maiden aunt, with significant responsibility for her family’s well-being. As the word for her indicates, she could often be found at the spinning wheel, doing essential, productive work. She had dignity, and so should the language used about her.

Sometimes justice moves us to break the rules. The proper way to name people that the Canadians call First Nations is disputed here in the U.S. Some prefer Indian or American Indian, others Native American, and others specific tribal names. Because I was referring to such people before Europeans arrived and imposed names on them, I chose to use “Native people.” (When I knew the tribal names, I used them.) The rule is to leave “native” lower-case, but I wanted their status in my book to be equivalent to that of the European settlers, whether Yankees and Yorkers born in the U.S. or Norwegian and Danish immigrants, all of whom get capital letters. I capitalized Midwestern throughout for a similar reason.

Copy editing is no easy, sure-fire undertaking, for either editor or author. Perils abound. No matter how carefully we choose words and construct sentences, readers may still misinterpret or even misread. An Amazon.com reviewer who didn’t like Beyond Good Intentions wrote that I said I was “weery” of the growing popularity of international adoption. I think the reviewer meant “weary.” What I had written, however, was “wary.” We can’t be too wary or too careful.

So that’s what a copy-edit is. ( This post could use some copy editing.) I passed yet another milestone this past Tuesday, December 15: I met the marketing team to begin planning the distribution of The Big Marsh, which will be published May 1, 2016.  And now I’ll sit tight and wait for page proofs in January.

And Keep Watching

I am almost finished with the final revision of my book, which is now titled, for certain, The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape. Minnesota Historical Society Press is publishing it in spring of 2016. When it is out of my hands and safely in production–soon!–I will blog again, and I look forward to it.

Watch This Space

I’m still around, living for the moment in Writer’s Limbo. I’ve sent in a book manuscript and signed a contract for its publication. The book, tentatively titled For the Birds: The Life and Drainage of a Minnesota Wetland, is due out in Spring 2016. Any day now I should be getting the editor’s comments.  Soon, or when the work on the book is done, I’ll be back to blog. Once again, I’ll write on whim, when something strikes me as worthy of commentary. It might even be tomorrow. Thanks for checking in from time to time.

The Splendor of the Exotic

We are enjoying the peak of the fall season here in Minneapolis, amid flaming red and rich gold maple trees, bronze oaks, and hues of rust and wine. Last Thursday Bob Herbert, formerly an op-ed writer with the New York Times and now affiliated with Demos, came to speak to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. He started out by lauding the beautiful day. It reminded him of learning about autumn in grammar school, he said, because the pictures in the books looked just like our trees. Now Herbert was born in Brooklyn, so he probably knew autumn first hand. Yet he made me think of the many children in warmer climates for whom trees turning red and gold are otherworldly. I remembered, too, how I used to puzzle over books that dated the coming of spring to March.

Recently I heard about an acquaintance who had gone to Maine earlier this year and, he said, “fulfilled a lifelong dream.” What might that be? He had walked on a frozen lake! When I tell this story to Minnesotans, they double over laughing. A couple I used to know moved to Minnesota from Maryland for graduate school and decided to use their sojourn here to try out winter wilderness camping. They pored over the map and chose a big lake north of the Twin Cities that would be just the place. When they pulled up with their camping gear, they found it covered with ice fishing houses. Cars and pickups drove back and forth on plowed, named streets. Yes, it was Mille Lacs.

Where this all leads me is to another memory that has greatly benefited my writing and teaching. An essay I was working on about cornfields had gotten a strangely befuddled and negative response from a New York City critic. In need of a second opinion, I turned to Paul Gruchow, the late Minnesota writer. He gave me a piece of advice I have lived by ever since: “Remember that you live in an exotic landscape. You need to interpret it to readers who haven’t been there.” It’s sound advice for all writers, wherever they live–even New York City.


Gångna tider

I feel as though I’ve sliced off a chunk of my life and let it fall away. In the midst of a serious basement cleaning, I came across a cardboard box taped shut and marked “Scandinavian Stuff to Store.” I doubt that the box was opened on its move from a former home to this one, where I’ve lived for 28 years. I imagine one of the friends who helped me through that difficult move transported it from its attic lodging to the old coal room of this basement. The coal room turned out to be a poor place to store precious things; its walls wept whenever the ground around the house was soaked. But how precious could “Scandinavian Stuff” be?

The tape peeled off easily, having lost its adhesive. Inside were spiral notebooks with the University of Chicago seal on the cover, along with the price, 60¢. Each corresponded to a class I took on my way to three degrees in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures. (Yes, I’m a bird as rare as the Chicago phoenix.)

  One notebook was a literary history on pages of graph paper, with titles of works charted alongside public events of the same year. I remember how refreshing it was to read Scandinavian novels in their historical context after my encounter, during my first year of general courses, with New Criticism, which insisted that nothing but the text is of interest. Another notebook recorded all that I was learning about sound changes from Proto Germanic to Old Norse and through all its phases and geographical divisions down to present day Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. I had once even known the patterns that distinguish Færoese from Icelandic. The notebooks affirmed my sense that I was a thorough and meticulous notetaker, as I read under the vaulted ceilings of my favorite Neogothic reading rooms, and as I followed discussion in class. Lectures were not the standard mode of a UC education.

The box of Scandinavian stuff reminded me how much I loved all that learning, how pleasurable it was to record new, amazing bits of information and then let them merge into place in a synthesis that made me feel as though I understood some facet of human experience, esoteric though it might be. For a moment I imagined myself reading through the notebooks again to recover all that knowledge I no longer retain. But they were too musty and smelly. Turning the pages made me cough. Instead I recycled the best of the bunch and dumped the rest in the garbage. With that reasonable, practical decision went some of the joy.

Years ago I found a shoebox of notecards for my Master’s thesis in the garage and felt great relief at clearing them out. This time, the residue is more like grief. I suspect the “stuff” I accumulated for my Ph.D. dissertation still lurks somewhere in this house, but finding it will not cheer me up. Tossing away the tangible evidence of my schooling leaves nothing to protect me from losing the sensory memory of it. I also realize that my daughters know little about who I was in my twenties and how passionate a learner I was. They know that I went to the University of Chicago and that it’s probably the reason I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” so much. I knew those guys in the place where, as the t-shirt reads, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I relished the Life of the Mind we odd ones came there to live.

If I’m going to be true to the spirit of my education, I should take up some new subject and fill new notebooks as joyfully as I filled the ones the city’s trucks hauled away this morning. I may be less thorough, less meticulous. The adhesive in my brain is nearly as worn as the adhesive on the tape around that precious, waterlogged box. And I probably ought to send in my end-of-the-year donation to the University of Chicago so that some other small town Midwesterner from a working-class family can enjoy the privilege of mental immersion in thrilling “stuff.”


Hope and New Shoes

Last week an overloaded boat full of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, at the cost of at least 143 lives.  I learned of Lampedusa only weeks ago, while playing the online game Geoguessr. What I saw onscreen was a quite rundown Italian city. I had no idea there was such an island just 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia. It didn’t look like a safe and welcoming place to be a stranger, but apparently other migrants have sought refuge there, too.

The director of health services for Lampedusa, Pietro Bartolo, was interviewed on TV. He seemed like a genuinely compassionate man, moved to tears by the tragedy that had happened in his jurisdiction. One observation he made has stuck with me:  The children among the victims, he said, were wearing new shoes, a sure sign of hope.

I’ve thought of those new shoes ever since. I’ve thought of all the parents over time, including those in my own family history, who have dressed their children in new shoes for a long, dangerous journey to a new and strange destination where life is supposed to be better.  Few of us can look back and say with certainty that our ancestors have stayed put in the one place they were born to and felt entitled to claim as home. Migration, exile, displacement, refugee status are common to the histories of all peoples.  Those hope-shod children and their parents deserve our compassion always, and, too often, our grief.


I have been at work the last couple of weeks drafting a chapter on 1877.  Yes, I just picked a year that might show changes afoot that advance the story I’m telling about the transformation of a landscape–to be precise, the drainage of a large wetland. I chose 1877 because I happened to learn that my great-great grandfather closed his blacksmith shop that year, at age 50. I figured there would be other reasons for doing so besides the toll on his body. 1877 turned out to be a good choice, but I won’t tell why here. That’s the story I’ve been drafting. You’ll have to wait for the book, which no one will be happier to see completed than its author.

One of the notable events of 1877 was the locust plague—an invasion of grasshoppers that crawled, flew, and wafted in on the wind as a drought spread from the west into my home territory in Southern Minnesota.  Anxiety about the crop-eating insects turned out to be worse than the damage they actually did in Freeborn County. Its many lakes and wetlands did not make a hospitable environment for grasshoppers.

Just a few minutes ago, I stepped out my front door to water the young oak tree in my boulevard, because a heat wave in August and September has brought drought conditions in 2013, too.  Clinging to the screen on my door was a creature like this one.

This photo, cropped and enlarged and framed, spent the summer hanging in the Westminster Gallery in downtown Minneapolis. It was taken by Maria Register, who snapped it because it was such a rare sighting, and because she thought the bug looked out of place. She called it a grasshopper and surmised it would be more at home in the grass, where its color would work as camouflage. She titled the photo “An Unlikely Beauty.” (The image here is a smudge compared to the framed photo.) A visitor to the photo exhibit said, however, that it was not a grasshopper but a locust, and that it was the same species of locust that wrought havoc on the plains and prairies in the 1870s. It likes the dirt.

So why did another of these rarities–or maybe the same one–turn up today, just as I completed my first full draft? Shall I take it as a talisman? Is it a warning or a sign of approval? Or shall I just blame its appearance on the drought that is compelling me to water my young tree?  I just went out to move the hose, and the insect was still there.