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Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir

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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 un 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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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 un 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.

30 review for Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir

  1. 4 out of 5

    Marvin

    Reproduced from my "Editor's Perspective" in the Summer 2001 issue of THE ANNALS OF IOWA: I don’t much like memoirs. But Packinghouse Daughter, by Cheri Register, is enchanting, disturbing, and provocative. It should be read by a wide range of readers, including academics and other middle-class professionals who pride themselves on “siding with the working class.” It shatters some of our illusions and our tendency to romanticize our identification with working-class people even as it encourages u Reproduced from my "Editor's Perspective" in the Summer 2001 issue of THE ANNALS OF IOWA: I don’t much like memoirs. But Packinghouse Daughter, by Cheri Register, is enchanting, disturbing, and provocative. It should be read by a wide range of readers, including academics and other middle-class professionals who pride themselves on “siding with the working class.” It shatters some of our illusions and our tendency to romanticize our identification with working-class people even as it encourages us to hold fast to our principles. The book should also be read by the countless working-class parents who worked hard to give their children the life they knew they could never have. Speaking for those children, this book says eloquently: we honor you, our parents, for your commitments and principles and will try to carry those into our very different worlds. As a bonus, the book’s author tells her story so well, with a disarming openness about her conflicted emotions and with such humor and earthy but deep insight, that it will be accessible even to those who don’t read much. Register tells a story of growing up in the 1950s as the daughter of a longtime employee of the Wilson meatpacking plant in Albert Lea, Minnesota, not far from the more famous (and, in her account, more favored) Hormel plant in Austin and close enough to the Iowa border to be included on most Iowa maps. Coming-of-age memoirs now flood the market with stories that cater to our need for a revised Horatio Alger myth. In countless stories—many of them moving, important stories for our time—children grow up suffering from unspeakable poverty, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional families, or racism, but somehow survive and overcome those conditions to become not wealthy business moguls but their equivalent in our politically correct age: writers or academics who speak out against poverty, violence, and racism. Despite some similarities, this memoir is different. Register acknowledges gratefully that her parents provided an emotionally and economically secure environment for her, while educating her about her place in a world with more complicated class divisions than we see in most popular memoirs. It is, in part, her more subtle account of those divisions that makes her story so compelling. Make no mistake about it: this is a one-sided story. Register’s father is a loyal union man, and she is loyal to the union line, too, especially in telling the story of a particularly divisive labor dis-pute in 1959. But even when she makes it clear where she believes justice and unfairness lie, she complicates the story in ways that enrich our understanding rather than feed our prejudices. I grew up in rural Ohio only slightly later than Register, the son of a small-town midwestern merchant in a solidly middle-class family with undoubtedly less disposable income than Register’s. My father, like many of Albert Lea’s merchants, resented the unions that secured better wages for the workers in the nearby General Motors plant than he thought he could afford to pay his loyal, hard-working employees—some of whom earned more than he did. That experience has always made me suspicious of class-based analyses of rural and small-town life. But Register’s subtle class analysis of life in mid-century Albert Lea rings true even to my suspicious ears. It also rings true because Register does not rely on memory alone. She consulted contemporary sources and interviewed a wide range of informants—balancing her interview with the union president by her interview and sympathetic portrayal of the plant manager, for example. Register knows what memories—hers and her informants—are good for. They convey the sentiment of the times. In that sense her account is sentimental in the best sense of that word. Her language is so vivid and her memories so fine-tuned that we feel we are walking the streets of Albert Lea with her, encountering mid-century sights and sounds that conjure up our own memories. But she knows enough not to trust memories when they become nostalgic, and she walks that fine line with a fine sense of balance. Register also manages to succeed where many memoirists try but fail: though cast as a memoir, this book feels like it is more about the times than it is about her. Packinghouse Daughter is an eloquent and fitting tribute to the working-class lives of The Greatest Generation.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tia

    Having lived in Albert Lea for a year, this was an interesting perspective of the city. A fine job of interweaving municipal, labor, and personal history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    I read this when it first came out and interviewed the author for a review in TCT. Read it again just before she came to Madison on 9/10/2001 for a book signing when the paperback came out. My original review follows. (Published Friday, November 10, 2000). I spent election night with the television on but the sound turnedoff, burying myself instead in the pages of Cheri Register's memoir aboutgrowing up in Albert Lea, Minn., a Midwestern labor town. It was anappropriate activity for this election I read this when it first came out and interviewed the author for a review in TCT. Read it again just before she came to Madison on 9/10/2001 for a book signing when the paperback came out. My original review follows. (Published Friday, November 10, 2000). I spent election night with the television on but the sound turnedoff, burying myself instead in the pages of Cheri Register's memoir aboutgrowing up in Albert Lea, Minn., a Midwestern labor town. It was anappropriate activity for this election night: a look back at another tortured moment in history but one that dealt intimately with all the issues that received such short shrift in this election: the power of wealth, the value of labor, the globalization of the economy. Register, who has a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Chicago,claims those letters really stand for ``Packinghouse Daughter,'' the title of her latest book. Part memoir, part history, the book examines Register's life in a working-class family against the backdrop of the bitter Wilson & Co.packinghouse strike in 1959-60, which devastated and divided her hometown. Register was a teenager during the strike and has spent the intervening years trying to make sense of the strike and her working-class upbringing. And telling the story of both -- a task that Register took on when, on a whim, she took a look at the papers of former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman on a visit to the new Minnesota History Center. During the strike Freeman sent in the National Guard, declared martial law and closed the Wilson plant. Among Freeman's papers was a note that spoke to Register across the chasm of time,``I have some notes on this and they may be historic someday.'' ``Only if someone who cares about this moment in history puts them to good use,'' Register thought to herself. And there's no question that she's put them to excellent use in this eminently readable volume. Much of the bittersweet drama of Register's book comes from her ability to turn a focused eye on her own family, town and time just at the moment they were all about to change irrevocably. And what Register details is what many baby boomers who grew up in the Farm Belt or the Rust Belt communities of the1950s experienced: the unspoken but ever-present dilemma of class -- where you came from and where you wanted to go. ``We belong to a generation of working-class children propelled into themiddle class by postwar prosperity, higher education, and our parents' determination to spare us the spirit-wrenching disappointments they endured as the youth of the Great Depression,'' Register writes. ``We have felt alien, caught between the blue-collar values of the communities we left behind and our new status as the `rich people' we used to scoff at.'' Register's friends today are those who understand that dichotomy. She quotes Deborah Galyan, recounting similar emotions about growing up working class in Bloomington, Ind., ``And the pure sensation of hurtling up and out of the past that used to thrill me disconcerts me now, with its sheer speed and the unsettling sense that something important is always dropping away.'' Register chronicles those important things like the strike but that is really only part of her story. As she points out, ``labor's supreme moment of glory is not the occasional militant strike but, rather, a good day's work rewarded with respect and a livable wage.'' The work ethic as seen in the lives of her parents and their neighbors is the underlying strength of both Register's book and her own life. What Register learned from her father's example is ``that talents are to be used to their fullest, even if the stage is small, the audience sparse, and the applause miserly. We believed in the virtue of work well done, knowing the reward was usually just more work to do.'' It's a lesson few are teaching and even fewer are learning these days. Though the strike may have been the impetus behind the book, Register covers a wide territory: from scenes of school kids touring the packinghouse to critiques of labor movies to a defense of eating meat to an imaginary conversation with IWW organizer Joe Hill. There are funny memories of American bandstand and cow magnets and small-town gossip. Register guides the reader on an engrossing tour of a life that has not really disappeared, but just has been marginalized even further. She clearly sees where corporate farms and global politics are taking us. And for the people who provide the food we eat and the products we buy, it is an ever more difficult life -- one where hard work and long hours don't begin to provide the standard of living her parents could expect. With ``Packinghouse Daughter'' Register honors both the family -- and the town -- that raised her.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Karl

    This book was required reading in a college level introductory creative nonfiction English class. People are selling this book as a look into union life and the "working class" family. What is left for the reader to figure out is the author is a communist. I attribute the 1959 violent strike to union leader Ralph Helstein who was influenced by Saul Alinsky (a Machiavellian style of community organizing), See page 359. This book is being used as a tool for indoctrination on college campuses to pr This book was required reading in a college level introductory creative nonfiction English class. People are selling this book as a look into union life and the "working class" family. What is left for the reader to figure out is the author is a communist. I attribute the 1959 violent strike to union leader Ralph Helstein who was influenced by Saul Alinsky (a Machiavellian style of community organizing), See page 359. This book is being used as a tool for indoctrination on college campuses to promote the conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie - class envy. The author first hints at being a communist on p.5 with her "boyfriend Len" short for Lenin and then goes into discussing her years of protesting while at the University of Chicago. A second reference to her communist ideology is on p.203,"If ever anyone was ripe for communist influence, at least Marx's theory of class conflict, it was fourteen-year-old me." This type of thinking deposits lifelong class hatred in its practitioners. An entire chapter is devoted to this hatred in, "My Vengeance On The Wienie Moguls." This should be a warning to people not to embrace the class envy promoted in this book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Randy

    A book like this brings back memories of Campbell's Soup (chicken and turkey processing) in Worthington, MN, a place i worked as a summer job in my early college years because it paid really well the time and was second shift. My mom worked their in the 50's and so did many others as well. Eventually, it closed. Some went to the hog processing plant on the edge of town, much like Albert Lea. The power struggle between "management" and "workers" is alive and well. In a job right out of university A book like this brings back memories of Campbell's Soup (chicken and turkey processing) in Worthington, MN, a place i worked as a summer job in my early college years because it paid really well the time and was second shift. My mom worked their in the 50's and so did many others as well. Eventually, it closed. Some went to the hog processing plant on the edge of town, much like Albert Lea. The power struggle between "management" and "workers" is alive and well. In a job right out of university as an engineer, I experienced the battle the union (IBEW) had since we (non union) had to change locations from Minnesota to California for a while. It turns out both union and non union personnel benefited from the outcome. In my last job, the company busted the various unions and we (engineers, etc. ) felt the burden as well. It was "if you don't like it, you can leave" mentality the company took on. What is it with big corporations anyway. Sometimes unions may take things too far or trend towards inflexibility but in general I appreciate the positive influence on the workforce. Without people, you would not have a company.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nicki

    This is an interesting memoir told from the perspective of the daughter of a millwright during the 1959 Wilson's meatpacking plant strike in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Register did a great deal of research to fill the gaps that childhood experience leaves. I found her honesty about her feelings and personal and local stereotypes very refreshing. I wish that this book were written less as a memoir. I was more interested in learning about what went on inside the plant rather than the history of her fa This is an interesting memoir told from the perspective of the daughter of a millwright during the 1959 Wilson's meatpacking plant strike in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Register did a great deal of research to fill the gaps that childhood experience leaves. I found her honesty about her feelings and personal and local stereotypes very refreshing. I wish that this book were written less as a memoir. I was more interested in learning about what went on inside the plant rather than the history of her family. Register was thorough at creating the setting, however. She describes the history of the town and the union quite well so the reader can understand the multiple layers of dynamics that created and affected such a significant event. I enjoyed reading how some things came full-circle at the end for her family, which would have been left out of a more historical, less memoir style of book. Overall, if you like history, unions, and/or Minnesota, this is a worthwhile read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jerry

    I grew up on a farm near Storm Lake, Iowa where there packinghouse. Her story brought back memories of the packing house and the period of time when it closed one day, laid off all the union workers, supposedly sold the plant (at least in opened in another name) and brought it immigrants to staff it. Cheri Register tells his story from the perspective of one who experienced what it was like to be part of the family where a father whom she remembers with great respect, worked in the packing house, I grew up on a farm near Storm Lake, Iowa where there packinghouse. Her story brought back memories of the packing house and the period of time when it closed one day, laid off all the union workers, supposedly sold the plant (at least in opened in another name) and brought it immigrants to staff it. Cheri Register tells his story from the perspective of one who experienced what it was like to be part of the family where a father whom she remembers with great respect, worked in the packing house, was involved in a strike and was victimized by it. While the author attempts to be objective as she tells her story, by the end there is no doubt about her resentment toward those who become wealthy on the backs of those who do the work, the value and importance of unions and the role of government. It is a good read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Cheri Register was 14 and in eighth grade in 1959 when Albert Lea, MN endured a strike at the Wilson meatpacking plant that eventually required the presence of the Minnesota National Guard--dividing the otherwise homogeneous little town and creating lasting fissures between the management, workers and local farmers. Register, whose father was a millwright, returns as an adult to the story with a researcher's perspective and documents from all sides, producing a subtle and affecting memoir of all Cheri Register was 14 and in eighth grade in 1959 when Albert Lea, MN endured a strike at the Wilson meatpacking plant that eventually required the presence of the Minnesota National Guard--dividing the otherwise homogeneous little town and creating lasting fissures between the management, workers and local farmers. Register, whose father was a millwright, returns as an adult to the story with a researcher's perspective and documents from all sides, producing a subtle and affecting memoir of all the subtle class gradations of little company towns and an adult's realizations of what conversations and actions really meant at the time.

  9. 5 out of 5

    LonewolfMX Luna

    I remember reading this book for my History of Labor Class with Professor Leikin. This is the story of working class family living in the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota in which the author Cheri Register tells how the story of how her working class family constantly struggle against the owners of a meatpacking house that provides jobs for the town, but at times it tries to screw them out of a decent wage in which ranges from the hazards of working on the killing floor to a confrontation with the I remember reading this book for my History of Labor Class with Professor Leikin. This is the story of working class family living in the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota in which the author Cheri Register tells how the story of how her working class family constantly struggle against the owners of a meatpacking house that provides jobs for the town, but at times it tries to screw them out of a decent wage in which ranges from the hazards of working on the killing floor to a confrontation with the Minnesota National Guard

  10. 4 out of 5

    Angela

    Well researched and written, this memoir addresses some larger questions: why the goal of the working class was to send their children away to college, and now they have little in common with each other; why the subject of diet is seemingly more important than worker safety in red meat preparation; how automation is a double-edged sword for workers who are subjected to dangerous occupations. The pace was a little slow for my taste, but I relived my own tour of the packing plant with her descript Well researched and written, this memoir addresses some larger questions: why the goal of the working class was to send their children away to college, and now they have little in common with each other; why the subject of diet is seemingly more important than worker safety in red meat preparation; how automation is a double-edged sword for workers who are subjected to dangerous occupations. The pace was a little slow for my taste, but I relived my own tour of the packing plant with her description.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Denise

    An interesting memoir, especially if you grew up in a working class pro-union household. Some of the author's insights about politics and the left in general were especially to the point. I completely enjoyed this book and applaud its perspective.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    Memoir/essay/history about the workers of the Wilsons packinghouse in Albert Lea, focusing on the strike of 1959, written by the now-grown daughter of one of the strikers. It reminded me of Marilyn Robinson's Gilead, if that book had been set in Minnesota and had been focused on organized labor.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    I highly recommend this book. I would not have read it but for a recommendation by a group followed online. It would have been nice to have this available to me 35 years ago when working in Austin & Albert Lea, my understanding of the communities would have been somewhat different. I highly recommend this book. I would not have read it but for a recommendation by a group followed online. It would have been nice to have this available to me 35 years ago when working in Austin & Albert Lea, my understanding of the communities would have been somewhat different.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sue Eklund

    Local author...easy, short memoir.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir (Paperback) by Cheri Register Small town labor history.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dmitri

    This book was the first assigned for a class on the history of labor. I dropped the class after having to read this. It confirmed my preference of military history to social history.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jane Anne

    This book has stayed with me. Especially the lonely Scandinavian boys, some homosexual, who came to the 'city' to work.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Susan Webb

    Wonderful coming of age story, how a young girl learns what it means to be working class and proud of it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Abigail (Abbe)

    Thank you Mary. I have no idea how i forgot this book I cried so hard through this book. a truly wonderful memoir of MN, a father's love, and a difficult agricultural industry.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jody Ogle schardin hallonquist

    Book was excellent on information of the hardships of the strike. It read more like a text book however.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Paige

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kate Travers

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dehlia

  24. 4 out of 5

    Diane

  25. 4 out of 5

    Marcus Peterson

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kari Charboneau

  27. 4 out of 5

    Susan

  28. 4 out of 5

    &drew

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lidi

  30. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Patterson

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