Reading Group Guide to Packinghouse Daughter
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About this guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Cheri Register’s Packinghouse Daughter. We hope they will give you a number of viewpoints from which to consider this engaging memoir.
About Packinghouse Daughter
In 1959, the small and 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 author 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 strengthened her own loyalties to those who labor, whether making bacon in an American meatpacking plant or stitching soccer balls for low pay in a third-world country.
In Packinghouse Daughter, Register blends personal memory as the daughter of a striking worker, extensive 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, reading her Ph.D. as “Packinghouse Daughter.”
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 “ugly” 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 we left behind and our new status as the ‘rich people’ we used to scoff at.”
- In the book’s opening chapter, Register recalls coming home and planning to buy a blue denim shirt to wear back at college, making clear her allegiance to the campus radicals. Her father brings her one from the meatpacking plant where he works, a shirt “soft to the touch, not so stiff that it would stand out among my classmates’ shirts as one newly acquired” (p. 9), but a shirt that when unfurled shows the stain of blood from the “hog kill.” How does the blue workshirt embody the conflicts Register feels both as the daughter of a blue-collar worker and as a young woman who aspires to a higher education? Do certain moments in your life carry symbolic meaning? When did you know, as Register does, that “at this moment I realized I had truly left home”?
- Register, a graduate with honors from the University of Chicago, notes that even now, she reads her Ph.D. as “Packinghouse Daughter,” realizing that “I still experience the world as a working-class kid away from home” (p. 10). Does Packinghouse Daughter support Register’s observation that an essential element of the American Dream is an abandonment of familiar places and values for dreamed-of success? Is it still true today that “to be successful, which means free from grueling labor, the children of blue-collar families must be driven from home, away from the familiar and secure” (p. 12)? How does that sense of estrangement shape Register’s worldview and that of others like her?
- As a young girl, Register recalls at first having “only a vague understanding of how Dad spent his days beyond the Safety First sign” (p. 27) above the gate of the Wilson & Co. packinghouse. Can you chart the author’s deepening knowledge and understanding of her father’s work as her memoir progresses? How have your views of work been shaped by the experiences of your parents? How did your first, cloudy visions of your parents’ work lives evolve into an understanding of what work is?
- After a school field trip to the plant, Register and her classmates spend “the rest of the day ridding ourselves of the horror by telling one another, over and over, what we had seen and what we only thought we saw” (p. 35). How aware are you of the work behind the food you eat? Was yours, like Register’s, a sudden awareness or did it grow over time? Does the American tendency toward packaging and processing divorce foods from their origins and from the necessary labor behind turning raw materials into finished products? Has Register’s writing made you more aware of all who contribute to the food you eat and to other products you consume?
- Although the town of Albert Lea had, as Register recalls, no very wealthy inhabitants, there remained subtle divisions of class. Register writes that “a child who wants to learn where she fits in the social scheme has to listen and watch carefully” (p. 119). How did you first become aware of class as a child or a young adult? In what ways did class divisions make themselves clear in your community or school as you were growing up? Have notions of class shaped your political leanings, your work life, or the way you think?
- In the chapter entitled “1959,” Register notes that this was the year in which events forced her to acquire “a dawning consciousness of the world” (p. 135). What historic events have served as personal awakenings in your life? When you think of the most important events in your life, how many are also events of larger importance that shaped your community or the world?
- In telling of the 109-day strike at the Wilson & Co. packinghouse, does Register successfully supplement her less objective and less reliable “emotional memory” with hard facts? How does the rush of emotional memory “steady and fervent and nearly obsessive at times” (p. 20) color her retelling of events? How does her naive experience of the strike as a fourteen-year-old girl add depth and color to her account? Is her emotional memory of “powerless workers up against a heartless adversary” (p. 163) challenged or confirmed by the research she does years later on the strike?
- In what respects does the press’s depiction of Albert Lea during the strike—“‘a spineless, leaderless city’ that tolerated ‘mob rule’ by ‘labor goons’” (p. 147)—contrast with the portrait painted by Register, as she sifts through memory, newspaper clippings, and interviews? What led to the strike and later to violence in Albert Lea? Was the governor’s action in closing the plant and instituting martial law reasonable given the circumstances?
- Register reprints two letters (pp. 213–15) from the files of Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman. Both relate to the strike but are written from very different points of view. How do the letters add to the story of the strike? What perspectives do the letters offer that Register’s own memories lack? Is participation in a strike still enough to cause someone to be labeled a “radical person,” as Mrs. Tuberty, the author of one letter, fears? How do Tuberty’s dreams for her children echo those of Register’s parents for her?
- When, under an arbitration ruling, Register’s father loses his job, the family is shocked and horrified. What strikes Register most, in retrospect, is her father’s reaction to his firing: tears and “a deep, soulful grief” (p. 227) rather than anger at the injustice. Why does her father’s lack of anger surprise her? How does Gordon Register’s devotion to his job reflect the willingness of depression-era men and women to make do with limited opportunities? Would workers of Register’s generation in similar situations react as her father did to his firing? Register admits that while she wants to be sure that she finds the work she is best suited to, her parents were looking simply for security and usefulness in their work. What do you look for in a job and how are your needs different from those of your parents?
- Although most workers at the Wilson & Co. packinghouse were rehired after the strike, the plant has gone through many changes in ownership and has struggled to remain open. In recent years, while there is nearly full employment in the town, Register notes that nearly thirty percent of schoolchildren qualify for subsidized meals. Are stable, working-class American communities like the Albert Lea of 1959 a thing of the past? How has industrial globalization changed the face of small-town America and the aspirations of small-town inhabitants? Has your life been affected by the move of blue-collar industrial jobs outside the United States?
- Throughout Packinghouse Daughter, Register combines personal memory with oral history interviews and a close examination of the historical record to create what she calls a “documentary, collective memoir.” In her research, she comes to admire Hazel Gudvangen, an Albert Lea woman who assembled a scrapbook during the strike, including not just articles but advertisements for apartments for rent—to any but scab workers. Who are the keepers or collectors of memory in your family or community? Do you share Hazel’s sense of history? What might future generations make of the scrapbooks, diaries, and letters you keep and the stories you tell?
- Trying as a grown woman to put her memories of the 1959 meatpacking strike in perspective, Register first attempted to write a novel. How would a fictional account of the strike have differed from this memoir? Would a novel written solely from a fourteen-year-old’s perspective have given you the same perspective on events as Register’s “documentary, collective memoir”?
- At several points in Packinghouse Daughter, Register adopts the image of a spaceship losing its booster rockets as it hurtles higher to illustrate how she feels leaving her blue-collar working-class roots behind to join the white-collar middle class. In her own upward mobility, what aspects of her upbringing does Register seem to reject and to hold onto? How does the fierceness with which she holds onto certain values—such as her belief in the value of work and the dignity of those who perform difficult jobs—relate to the traumatic events of the 1959 strike? In what ways have dramatic events or situations shaped your beliefs and values?
- Early in her memoir (p. 22), Register repeats a story told by essayist Paul Gruchow whose favorite high school teacher asks him, “What are you doing to honor the people who raised you?” Can memoir serve as a way of celebrating and honoring our parents or communities? How well does Register succeed in making her memoir a “memorial” to the parents, town, and packinghouse that raised her? In what ways do you honor those who raised you?
Suggestions for Further Reading & Understanding
- Carol Bly. Changing the Bully Who Rules the World: Reading and Thinking about Ethics.
- Barbara Ehrenreich. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
- James T. Farrell. Chicago Stories.
- Bill Holm. The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth: Minneota, Minnesota.
- Mary Karr. The Liar’s Club.
- Peter Oresick & Nicholas Coles, editors. Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life.
- Peter J. Rachleff. Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.
- Meridel Le Sueur. Crusaders: The Radical Legacy of Marian and Arthur Le Sueur.
- Sebastiao Salgado. Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age.
- Scott Russell Sanders. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.
- Upton Sinclair. The Jungle.
- Don J. Snyder. The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found.
- Studs Terkel. Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do.
- Reg Theriault. How to Tell When You’re Tired: A Brief Examination of Work.
- Barbara Kopple. American Dream. (documentary video)
About the Author
Born and raised in Albert Lea, Minnesota, CHERI REGISTER now lives in Minneapolis, where she is a writer and a teacher. Her previously published books include “Are Those Kids Yours?”: American Families with Children Adopted from Other Countries (Free Press, 1991) and The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life (Hazelden, 1999). The opening essay in Packinghouse Daughter, “The Blue Workshirt,” was cited as a notable essay in Best American Essays 1996. Excerpts from Packinghouse Daughter have appeared in Hungry Mind Review (now Ruminator Review) and other literary magazines. A former professor at the universities of Idaho and Minnesota, Register instructs students in writing literary nonfiction in courses at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
Return to Packinghouse Daughter.