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Q & A with Caroline Burau, author of Tell Me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches from 911

Posted byAlison Aten on 18 Aug 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Interview

Tell Me Exactly What Happened

Caroline Burau

In her new book, Tell Me Exactly What Happened, veteran 911 operator Caroline Burau shares her on-the-job experiences at both a single-person call center (complicated by a public walk-up window) and a ground and air ambulance service.

We asked Caroline more about the changes in the 911 dispatch community and the specific challenges dispatchers face.

Meet Caroline at the book launch celebration for Tell Me Exactly What Happened on Thursday, September 8, 2016, at 7:00 pm at Common Good Books in St. Paul.

Your first book, Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat, details your rookie years as a 911 dispatcher for Ramsey County. How long were you there, and how is Tell Me Exactly What Happened different?

I worked at Ramsey County for two years, then another two years at White Bear Police Department. Tell Me Exactly What Happened starts with my first year at White Bear, and ends after eight years as a medical dispatcher at an ambulance company.

Answering 911 is about the shock and awe I experienced as a rookie dispatcher, and Tell Me Exactly What Happened is about what happens after the awe wears off and what was once shocking becomes routine. It’s about how the things that may make you a great dispatcher may make you a really annoying parent or a distant spouse. It’s about losing people you care about to the job. It’s about losing people you will never meet. It’s also about the people you are sitting next to when these things happen, and how they become like siblings in a strange, macabre, sleep-deprived second family.

And in between those things, it’s also about all the strange new things I or my partners heard on the phone since my first book was written. In ten years, they do pile up.

How has the profession changed in the past several years?

Cell phones have changed things a lot, and not for the better when it comes to 911. It used to be that when a call came in from a traditional “land line,” the dispatcher could see an exact address plus an apartment or suite number. But more and more people are dropping their landlines and only using cell phones. The technology exists to pinpoint a cell caller as accurately as a landline does, but most departments don’t have that technology yet, and their budgets won’t allow it. I actually just visited a 911 center that didn’t even have computer-aided dispatch yet. I couldn’t believe it. The dispatcher wrote all calls, addresses, and every other detail down in a notebook. A notebook.

When I think about change in dispatching, I get stuck more on what needs to change, really. Dispatchers need more and better training. In Minnesota there isn’t even a 911 dispatcher cert course anymore. Most training happens on the job under huge time constraints and is very “catch as catch can.”

I’d also like to see dispatchers get reliable emotional support for what they go through day to day. Because of the culture in emergency services and also because of short-staffing, most dispatchers don’t get any relief after a traumatic call. Someone who has just dispatched an officer-involved shooting scene shouldn’t have to stay in the seat and keep working, for example, but it happens all the time. Dispatchers need the opportunity to step away and talk to someone after a terrible call. And they shouldn’t have to ask for it. It should just be the way things are done.

I probably sound ridiculously biased toward the profession, and I’m not ashamed of that. Dispatchers usually make up a much smaller percentage of any given police department or ambulance company, so they get overlooked. I’d like that to change.

Headlines about 911 dispatchers often bemoan the slow response times or mistakes. What would you like people to know about the job?

Depending on staffing, a dispatcher can be responsible for monitoring multiple radio channels and multiple phone lines at the same time. So, you might hear a recording of a dispatcher on the phone with someone, and it may seem like he or she isn’t listening or doesn’t care. But that is probably not the case at all. It’s just that if you have to listen to several things at once, something has to give. I worked in a single-person dispatch center for two years and felt constantly like I was missing things, and I know that I was. You just compensate by getting better and better at knowing how to triage it all. I had hoped that it would get better in a dispatch center with multiple dispatchers, but it really just meant more work for fewer dispatchers per call.

Basically, if all you heard was a sixty-second recording of the 911 call on the evening news, you’re probably not getting the whole picture.

You write about the toll this kind of high-stress job takes on you and your colleagues, yet so many people stay in the job–why do you think that is?

I think most dispatchers stay on the job because they like it, and they know (even if nobody else does) that a seasoned dispatcher who can multitask like a madman is a truly awesome thing to behold, and that skill and efficiency saves lives.

There are some who stay in the job long after they’ve burned out. Part of the problem is that it’s not a skill set that transfers readily to other careers. When I left dispatching to go into the corporate world, it took me a long time to get used to the idea that a clerical error or a missed phone call from a client could be considered an “emergency.” It took a while to get used to the fact that what I do now is NOT life or death. It will not be on the news, one way or another. Even if you’re miserable, there’s a lot of pride in the idea that as a dispatcher you’re doing something that changes lives. Saves lives. It matters.

What is the difference between a public safety dispatcher and a medical dispatcher?

Public safety dispatchers are usually the first to pick up a given 911 call, so they have to ask for and verify the address of the call and dispatch police and fire if needed. If a 911 call has a medical component, then the public safety dispatcher transfers it to a medical dispatcher, who sends paramedics by ground or by helicopter, and then stays on the line with the caller to give “pre-arrival” instructions. So, they are both 911 dispatchers, just with different roles.

How has the 911 dispatch community reacted to your first book?

Based on the reader reviews I’ve seen, and the followers on my Answering 911 Facebook page, I think half or more of my readers actually are dispatchers. They relate to what I went through as a rookie, and while the details might change a bit from region to region, the basics of the job are very much the same. The feelings are the same. Some dispatchers tell me they make their loved ones read it, so they can feel a little better understood. Some trainers make new dispatchers read it, so they can have some idea of what to expect on the job. This is all a huge honor to me, and humbling. These are the people I needed to do right by with Answering 911, and of course I wanted to do the same in the new memoir.

Do most people understand how incredibly stressful the job is? Is chronic workplace stress a common problem?

I think most people have work stress to some degree or another, and part of me feels selfish writing about dispatcher stress like it’s the only stressful job. But dispatcher stress is unique, and uniquely overlooked, and I don’t think most people quite comprehend it, no. Generally dispatchers are too busy to toot their own horns, so I’m just going to sit over here and toot it for them.

I think what people don’t understand about dispatching is that it’s not all funny and bizarre, and it’s not all murder and rape. In between the notable calls are about a million semi- or non-emergent calls, and those can really grate on you, too, partially because there are just so many and partially because they can get in the way of properly managing the really critical calls.

Another dispatcher stress I address in the book is powerlessness. Shows like CSI make things like detective work and lifesaving look so fast and easy. But most of the calls that come in are for crimes that are already cold and lives that are already lost and can’t be helped. Being a dispatcher often means always doing everything you possibly can, but having to accept that most times everything is not enough.

“People Like Us” by David Lawrence Grant

Posted byAlison Aten on 20 Jul 2016 | Tagged as: African American, Arts, Asian American, Authors, Book Excerpt, Literary, MHS press

A Good Time for the Truth

Excerpt from David Lawrence Grant’s essay, “People Like Us,”
in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in America, edited by Sun Yung Shin

Minnesota Not-Nice

Anyone who has ever been in a difficult, complicated relationship knows that the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. Neglect is indifference’s twin sister. And there is no such thing as benign neglect. Neglect is, in its truest meaning, a verb. And like twin horsemen of the apocalypse, Neglect and Indifference have teamed up to cause a lot of damage.

The evidence of the damage is everywhere to be seen: failing schools; high concentrations of persistent poverty in failing neighborhoods; the egregious over-incarceration of people of color; an alarming number of annual incidents in which people of color are shot by the police or end up dead in police custody. How did things get so bad, even here?

History Matters

As always, it helps to know the history. Minnesota’s soldiers returned from the Civil War thinking, “Union restored; slavery finished; problem fixed.” The slaves had been freed. Why wasn’t their community exploding with vigor, enthusiasm, and industry, looking to make the most of their newfound liberty? Why were they still having problems? “Why, after all this time, aren’t they becoming more like us?”

Any reader of the fledgling black press during Reconstruction would be mightily impressed at the astonishing degree to which the recently freed slaves were, indeed, deeply grateful . . . were, indeed, working with great vigor, enthusiasm, and industry to build a better life for themselves and their community. But even though two hundred thousand black soldiers had just served bravely and nobly in the cause of Union, they found themselves still excluded from every new opportunity. The promised forty acres and a mule were never delivered. White veterans in the tens of thousands got an opportunity to help this nation-building effort in the underpopulated West—in places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—along with an opportunity to build a personal legacy of prosperity that they could hand down to future generations. Black veterans got . . . lectures about “bootstraps” and hard work—something about which they already knew plenty.

There would be no help forthcoming, no assistance in lifting themselves out of abject poverty and the shadow-world of life on the extreme margins as second-class citizens. Instead, there were Black Codes (spelling out where black people could go and could not go; requiring annual and unbreakable labor contracts; demanding fees from any who worked in any occupation besides farmer and servant) and Jim Crow domestic terrorism. Now that slavery was gone, what black people encountered was the cold reality that the rest of America still seems so completely unready to admit: that America’s real original sin was not slavery, but white supremacy. The law may say Jim Crow is dead . . . but if it is, then it’s having a long and vigorous afterlife.

I was doing some neighborhood organizing work in Chicago during the summer of 1970. When I told a friend there that I was getting ready to come live in Minneapolis for awhile, he said, “Aw, brother, really? Why? Worst cops in the whole world up there, man!”

I used to volunteer at a residential substance abuse program in South Minneapolis. After finishing my last tutoring session one evening, I started walking home about 7:30 pm. Just as I crossed the street, a car came tearing up at high speed, and three plainclothes police officers leaped out with guns in hand. They identified themselves, and then one of them holstered his gun, threw me up against the trunk of the car, and cuffed me.

I asked why. One of the officers pulled a handgun from his boot—a personal, non-regulation weapon—held it against my head, removed the safety, and cocked it. That’s a helluva sound—a gun being cocked while jammed tightly against the dome of your skull. Intimidating. I was intimidated. But more than anything, I was angry. And it occurred to me, even in the heat of the moment, that this was exactly the reaction he wanted . . . like someone who lights a fire and thinks, Now, let me throw a little gasoline on there. Instead of answering my question, the cowboy with the gun to my head told me not to move, then shoved my head hard to one side with the barrel and said, “Wouldn’t even breathe real hard if I was you. This gun’s got a hair trigger.” There was another reason to be wary of that gun. I knew countless stories of weapons like that, produced from a boot or the small of an officer’s back, meant to be placed in a suspect’s hand or close to his body should he somehow end up dead by the time the encounter was over.

One of the other officers finally spoke up: “Liquor store was robbed a couple blocks away about twenty minutes ago by somebody who matches your description.” As they inspected my ID and the other contents of my wallet, I told him as calmly as I could that right across the street, there was a whole building full of people who could vouch for who I was and where I’d been all evening. All three cops heard this, but they ignored it. It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all.

They threw me into the back of their car and radioed that they’d arrested a suspect. As they began to pull away from the curb, a voice on their radio told them to stay put. A lieutenant pulled up in a plain car behind us and talked with the officers while I listened to the police chatter coming over the airwaves.

The suspect was described as a light-skinned black male, about five foot seven, with extremely close-cropped hair and a slight mustache, wearing a knee-length, light tan leather coat. That was the only time I gave them attitude. I smirked a little and asked them, “That supposed to be me?” I stood about five foot ten in my boots, and I’m a medium brown . . . not someone that anybody has ever described as “light-skinned.” I wear glasses and was then sporting a scraggly goatee. And at that time, I had what might have been the biggest, baddest Afro in the entire state of Minnesota—a foot-tall brain-cloud kind of Afro, as far from “close-cropped” as it’s possible for hair to get. And I was wearing a waist-length, almost sepia leather coat, nothing remotely like the one in the description.

The lieutenant heard this, too. He flashed his badge at me and said to them, “Guys . . . really? Cut this guy loose.” Just like that. One of them spit, a couple of them grumbled, they uncuffed me and pulled me back out of their car, returned my wallet, and then tore off back down the street. No, “Oh, well, sorry, sir,” from them. Nothing.

I knew, as I tried to shake it off while walking home, that other scenes like this were playing out that evening in any number of other places in America. What if that non-regulation gun the cowboy cop had pressed against my head really did have a hair trigger? If I had reacted angrily and resisted, I might well have been killed, as have so many others before me and since, in just such an encounter.

There’s a history to encounters like these. And if you understand this history, even a little, you understand that all the hue and cry about “weeding a few bad apples” out of police departments and doing some retraining will not fix our problem. It is important to weed “bad apples” like that cowboy out of our police departments. But the core of the problem is that although undeniable racial progress has been made, the large numbers of African Americans left behind in intractable poverty are still stuck in the same cultural space as our ancestors were when just newly freed from slavery: stuck on the margins as perpetual outsiders in the land of their birth; feared; stigmatized as criminal by nature. This mostly subterranean attitude applies, in general, to other low-income communities of color as well.

So, the hard truth is that police departments deal with communities of color in exactly the way that American society, Minnesota society, has asked them to. There’s a readily observable pattern: people who find themselves routinely locked out of equal opportunity will generally find themselves locked up to roughly that same degree. Racially based restrictive housing covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948, but they have continued in practice. Until 1972, thousands of municipalities had vagrancy laws on the books that were about regulating black people’s lives. Even though those laws have long since been struck down, the racist beliefs that created and sustained them are still very much around—and as a consequence, too many police officers sometimes behave as though they’re still on the books. The result is that simply being young and black or brown is a de facto “status crime.” It’s not necessary to do anything wrong . . . just step outside on the street or get behind the wheel of your car, and you could already be in trouble.


As many black families pulled up stakes and left the communities where they’d been born and raised, searching for a better life, this part of the collective African American story never seemed to be grasped by the communities to which they moved, Minnesota included. Truly welcoming weary strangers into your company means, first, learning something about their story. How else can you possibly begin to divine what assistance or support they might need from you as they begin to build a new life? But Minnesotans, like other Americans, have seldom known or, seemingly, haven’t cared to know much about the stories of the non-European populations with whom they share this land.

Minnesotans evince little knowledge of the history of settler aggression or the widespread and egregious abrogation of treaty rights when it comes to the experiences of Indigenous peoples native to this soil. There is precious little understanding of the diverse histories of our Chicano/Latino populations, many of whom long ago became citizens, not because they crossed international borders to get here, but because the U.S. border crossed over them as a result of the massive amount of land seized from Mexico at the end of the Mexican War. A story that can be told in easily graspable, shorthand form (think Hmong refugees whose men had helped the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, forced to flee their old homeland to escape reprisals) stirs sympathy enough to mobilize an organized resettlement effort. But even that only goes so far. There is little patience here for immigrants from anywhere—Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Latino—or even Americans from much closer to home, like Chicago, who seem slow to assimilate. Ojibwe and Dakota people get the same treatment. And there’s a stark, simple equation at work here: if you fail to value a people’s stories, you fail to value them.

In sharp contrast to this, new immigrants are always listening for and trying to make sense of the stories of their adopted land. But here in the North Country, immigrants scramble to figure out for themselves the many unspoken rules about how to live in harmony with Minnesota Nice. And some of these rules are damned hard. They learn that no matter how angry and aggrieved you may feel, given the history of what’s happened to you and your people, you’re still expected to abide by the unspoken mandate to “kwitchurbeliakin.” That’s “Quit Your Belly Achin’,” for the uninitiated. Because life is just not fair. Period. So, whatever’s happened to you, suck it up and move on. It’s not okay to outwardly show anger or resentment in any way. This is evidence of weakness. And it’s not nice.

Being a true Minnesotan also means being self-sufficient. All cultures express this value in some way, but Minnesota’s is the most extreme iteration I’ve ever encountered. My introduction to at least one man’s version of this ideal came from a mechanic named Bud. He owned and ran a car-repair shop in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that, over decades, he’d seen transition from mostly white, mixed middle and working class, to largely working class and poor people of color.

In an area that had become about 60 percent black, and whose population had been steadily getting younger, the only customers ever seen coming or going were white men over forty. In inner-city neighborhoods of color, places like that become unofficially recognized as “no go zones.” Doesn’t look like your business is welcome there, so . . . you simply erase them from your mental map of the neighborhood, to the extent that when you pass by, you literally don’t even see them anymore. But on the day Bud and I met, the family car was giving me big trouble and I happened to be just a block or two from his place, so I figured it was a good day to stop in and take my chances.

Word was that the guy was racist, but after a little conversation, it didn’t feel that way to me. The more we talked, the more it occurred to me that, really, Bud was just generally a grumpy old bastard . . . and that he probably tended to instantly distrust and dismiss anybody who found it hard to deal with this fact. As I look back on our encounter from the perspective of someone who’s become a grumpy old bastard himself, I’m even more convinced of this. I told him what the car was doing, but he cut me off, grunting his diagnosis before I could even finish. “Alternator. Ain’t got time for that today . . . but I got one I could sell ya.” When I told him that I’d never replaced one and wouldn’t know where to begin—told him I’d just go on and walk home if he thought he’d have time to fix it for me the next day—he shot me a searing look of pity mixed with disgust and said, simply, A man ought never pay another man to do something he could do for himself.

This pronouncement felt stunningly sharp and severe, especially coming from the mouth of someone who did, after all, make his living from doing the repairs that his customers didn’t care to do. His words made me wonder what he must think of most of us men walking around his rapidly changing neighborhood, black and brown men, none of whom had come up, as he did, on a hardscrabble farm established by Norwegian immigrant grandparents who made the clothes they wore and who ate, almost entirely, only the food they grew themselves. People for whom life was hard . . . but who never complained. I thought about us black men from the neighborhood who walk around looking sullen and sad, and how men like Bud must look at us and wonder why. They don’t see much, if any, evidence of the discrimination that keeps us angry and on edge. They certainly don’t see how they’ve ever personally been guilty of committing an act of discrimination against us or anyone else. We don’t “get” each other. They don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to us, and we don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to them. So, even though some of the time we share the same space, we avoid talking . . . and when we must, we keep it superficial, allowing ourselves to come tantalizingly close for an instant, but then spiraling past each other like separate galaxies, each on its own axis, into the void.

As Bud’s words sank in, I turned to leave, but then suddenly, something in me wouldn’t let me leave on that note. I felt the need to challenge him, surprise him, through a small, spontaneous gesture, aimed at bridging that yawning, silent gulf between us, if only for a moment. “Okay, then,” I said. “Wanna take a minute or two and show me how to do it myself?” Without needing even a moment to think about it, he surprised me by pulling out the tools I’d need and agreeably talking me through the job while he sipped strong coffee and went back to working on the car he’d been fixing when I walked in.

As we worked side by side in his tiny shop, I eased into a story about my own people—how generations of my folk struggled, always managing to creatively “make a way from no way.” He didn’t say much. But he was listening. My attempt to paint as vivid a picture for him as I could of the people I come from—people who also took what life threw their way and didn’t complain—seemed to resonate with him. Mid-job, I noticed there was a sign on the wall stating that it was illegal for customers to be back there in the shop, an edict he’d apparently decided to ignore in my case. Even though he stepped in to help me replace and tighten the belts, he also decided to completely ignore the sign that said, “Shop Charge, $45 hr.,” because when I pulled out my checkbook to pay for the parts and asked why I shouldn’t pay him at least enough to split the difference on time with him, he said, “Well . . . why? Done it yourself, din’t ya?”

Minnesota Nice can be really nice. Interesting and complicated too.

Bridging the gulf between us is hard. It takes courage and effort. And the effort often results in an encounter that can be both unrewarding and unpleasant. But what alternative do we have? The demographic makeup of Minnesota, like the rest of the country is changing rapidly and radically. By 2050, the majority of America’s citizens will be comprised of groups who used to be called “minorities.” The majority here in Minnesota is likely to remain white for some time, but populations of color, especially the Latino population, will see a dramatic increase. The Somali population of the state was already so large by the year 2000 that Islam quietly supplanted Judaism as the state’s second most prominent religious faith.

As we move forward, we can lean on this: that although it tends to happen slowly and only with great, conscious effort, people and cultures do change in response to the changing realities and needs of their times. If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start by talking less and listening more.

We can listen—really listen—to one another’s stories and learn from them. Collectively, we can learn to tell a story that includes all our stories . . . fashion a mosaic-like group portrait from those stories that we all can agree truly does resemble people like us.

David Lawrence Grant has written drama for the stage, film, and television, as well as fiction and memoir. He has written major reports on racial bias in the justice system for the Minnesota Supreme Court and on racial disparities in the health care system for the Minnesota legislature. He teaches screenwriting at Independent Filmmaker Project/Minnesota.

Q & A with Michelle Leon, author of I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland

Posted byAlison Aten on 11 May 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Music

Michelle Leon I Live InsideMichelle Leon was the bass player for the influential punk band Babes in Toyland from 1987 to 1992, and again in 1997. In her new memoir, I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland, she takes readers on the roller coaster ride of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and her own journey of self-discovery.

Meet Michelle  on Thursday, May 26, at Moon Palace Books. I Live Inside is their Rock n Roll Book Club pick for May!

We asked Michelle to tell us more about how and why she came to write I Live Inside.

I Live Inside documents the five years you spent in Babes in Toyland, but also flashes back to your childhood. Why did you decide to incorporate these vignettes from your youth?

I wrote the book very non-linearly. I was all over the place, creating scenes as they came to me, bouncing from childhood to the present day and back to the Babes days. As I looked through the pieces later, there were so many parallels—family road trips in a station wagon and touring in a van with the band; feeling out of place as a kid and again later as a young adult; moments of loss. So it was very fun to play with that, refining the scenes so they were even more echoing and reflective of each other.

Your prose is so sensitive and sensory and your style poetic. What were your literary influences?

Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Tennessee Williams, Lydia Davis, Mark Doty, Joan Didion, Amy Hempel. I love the Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement; her style of writing in vignettes was something my adviser at Goddard, Douglas Martin, showed me when he saw how I was writing my book, and it gave me confidence working in that style. Patti Smith, Eileen Myles. Darcey Steinke’s new book Sister Golden Hair is killer; she was also an adviser at Goddard. Anything Maggie Nelson, but especially Bluets—more vignettes. Half a Life by Darin Strauss is another. The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison. Mary Karr’s Cherry. I read tons of memoirs preparing for this book. I definitely have a literary comfort zone—I should branch out.

Why did you want to share your story?

I didn’t want to share it at first. I was very protective and defensive about the subject for a long time; I felt a lot of sadness and loss. I didn’t want my identity to revolve around being the former bass player in Babes in Toyland. But people always asked me what it was like being in the band. I never had the answer they wanted, like I was supposed to tell stories about trashing dressing rooms and throwing TVs out hotel windows and hanging out with Bono. What I had was a very complicated and intense relationship with two other women that was like a marriage, while running a business together, living together, creating art together, experiencing the highest of highs and navigating horrific loss together. Loving each other like a family, driving each other crazy with our weird habits and egos, the unique bond of making and playing music together; these beautiful and singular life experiences we shared, and it still not being enough to keep us together. The day came when I HAD to write this story as a way to understand it all.

What do you miss most about being in the band?

I miss the energy of playing music onstage, the elation in that, the freedom; not knowing what town you are in when you are touring, not brushing your hair or going to Target for toilet paper. Living in that weird alternative universe. I miss co-writing songs and drinking beer at practice, having inside jokes and laughing my ass off with my band. I miss going to music stores and trying out new distortion pedals and strings and guitars. I miss having a job where a pair of American flag bell-bottoms is the perfect thing to wear. I miss traveling to places I never dreamed in my life I would see. I miss making new friends and seeing old friends out on the road.

But I am someone who loves home, loves staying in and being quiet; being in a touring band is very challenging for me. I don’t like being away from my family, friends, pets, kitchen, bed, bathtub, garden, neighborhood, and lovely old home, even though there are so many things I love about being in a band.

Do you still play the bass?

A little bit. My step-kid, Jae, goes to a performing arts high school, and I just went to the school and played with Jae’s classmates. We played “Smoke on the Water” together and it was awesome. Jae plays my old bass—a 1975 Fender Jazz we call “Lionheart,” a combination of our last names—and that makes me very proud.

What is your relationship with the band like now?

We have always remained close friends through so many different phases of life. Not that it was always easy. There was a lot of healing that occurred over the years. Still, I was really scared about how they were going to react to the book. It is such a personal story and a serious invasion of their privacy. So I have been overwhelmed and moved by their support. Lori was amazing at helping me remember details; she has an incredible memory. I’d text her questions like, “Have I ever been to Belgium?” And she’d know the answer. The experience of writing this text has brought us closer, which was a beautiful surprise.

What have you been up to since your departure from the band?

Everything! I worked at a flower shop, owned a flower shop, lived for almost a decade in New Orleans, where I renovated old houses and worked as a real estate agent, stayed for a year after Katrina. I finished college and grad school, then also earned my teaching license. I work as an elementary school special education teacher, with an emphasis on autism spectrum disorders. I married an amazing man a few years ago, gave birth to our son River the week after my forty-sixth birthday, and help co-parent Jae. We have three crazy, sweet dogs—two are therapy-certified and come to school with me. I am very blessed in this life. I am ready for more.

Twin Cities Independent Bookstore Day is this Saturday!

Posted byAlison Aten on 28 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Event

independent-bookstore-dayA Good Time for the TruthI Live Inside

We’re excited to be a sponsor of this year’s Twin Cities Independent Bookstores Passport!

This Saturday, April 30 is the Second Annual Independent Bookstore Day, and to celebrate, ten Twin Cities area bookstores have teamed up to produce a Bookstore Day Passport.

As noted on the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association website:

Customers pick up a copy of the passport at any of the participating stores and receive their first stamp. Any individual who travels to all ten stores during business hours on Independent Bookstore Day and receives a stamp from each store will receive a $10 gift card from every participating bookstore–$100 in total value. When all the stamps have been collected, customers snap a photo of their completed stamp page and send it to the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association via twitter (@MidwestBooks), and we will gather contact info and send them their gift cards.

Moon Palace Books in South Minneapolis will also be producing a new and updated edition of its Twin Cities Bookstore Map, which will include all bookstores in the Twin Cities, not just those participating in the passport, Independent Bookstore Day, or members of MIBA.

We’re also honored to have several of our authors participate in Independent Bookstore Day activities:

Birchbark Books at Noon
Heid E. Erdrich signs and shares her book, Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories and Recipes from the Upper Midwest

Common Good Books from 2:00-3:30 pm
Sun Yung Shin and IBé sign A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota

Magers & Quinn at 7:00 pm
Michelle Leon reads and signs her new book, I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland

Q & A with Cheri Register, author of The Big Marsh

Posted byAlison Aten on 21 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

The Big Marsh

Cheri Register’s newest book, The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape, recounts how a rural community is changed forever when moneyed interests conspire to transform a treasured wetland. As Sue Leaf, author of Potato City and The Bullhead Queen, notes:

The Big Marsh describes the glorious dreams, the grandiose schemes, the lies, the deception, the ignorance, the avarice, and the unheeded pleas of those who saw beauty where others saw a wasteland. Minnesota has lost more than 50 percent of its pre-settlement wetlands. In lyrical prose, Cheri Register tells us how this happened.”

We asked Cheri to tell us more about how and why she came to write The Big Marsh.

The Big Marsh is set in your home territory and even involves your family. Did you grow up with this story?

No, I didn’t. I knew only the final piece—the Hollandale story—about how a lake was drained in the early 1920s and Dutch people were brought in to farm vegetables in the peat soil. I didn’t know that there was a long, contentious backstory that pitted local farmers against outside real estate developers. I didn’t know that the “lake” was actually 18,000 acres of wetland. That earlier history has been lost. My first inkling of it was an essay written in 1935 that I found by happenstance. The headline grabbed me: “Connivings of Dishonest Men Cheat Nature as Well as Fellow Beings, Writer Avers.” The writer turned out to be my great-grandfather! With that fairly cryptic article as my starting point, I had to piece together the story—or watch it take shape—from county records, newspaper mentions, family memorabilia, and revealing entries in a young, enterprising lawyer’s archived diary. It took years of research.

Agricultural drainage is hardly a sexy, or even literary topic. What kept you at it?

I’ve got both a practical answer and a spooky answer to that question. Drainage is an essential theme in Midwestern history. We can’t fully understand rural life or the flourishing of the “heartland” or “breadbasket” of the United States without acknowledging the radical transformation of the landscape that drainage brought about. My daughters used to come home from elementary school upset over what was happening to the Amazon rainforest, and I’d think, what about the loss of Minnesota’s forests and prairies and savannas and wetlands? I’ve talked to intelligent, educated Midwesterners who have no idea that we live atop a network of buried drainage tiles, miles and miles of plumbing. The history of drainage needs to be told, and I felt lucky to be able to contribute one small story. My spooky answer is that my great-grandfather would not let me go. He followed me everywhere, dropping hints, drawing unexpected connections, reminding me of my obligation. I never saw his ghost, but I sure did feel his moral conscience bearing down on mine.

So is this an environmentalist book?

I’m not making an argument or proposing solutions. What I have written is history and family memoir, with an emphasis on landscape and the meaning of place. I am, however, a lover of wetlands, having grown up among the remnants of them, and I’m happy to show that wetlands were not universally dismissed as wasteland but in fact had value to those who lived around them. I do hope my story of how this one drainage happened will serve some purpose in our current public discussion of the unintended consequences of drainage: flooding, soil depletion, water pollution, loss of wildlife, etc.

Your memoir, Packinghouse Daughter, was quite successful. This is a very different book, isn’t it?

Not really. It may not have the immediacy of a memoir that draws on firsthand experience, but I do make clear my personal stake in the story, and I use family memoir throughout. I am pursuing, once again, the central question that motivates all of my writing, even my books about chronic illness and international adoption: What can we learn from the intersection of personal experience with larger, public events? As for the specific subject matter of The Big Marsh, I think of it as a prequel to Packinghouse Daughter. Ultimately it’s about the industrialization of agriculture, and it helps explain how the offspring of family farmers ended up working in the food processing industry, including meatpacking plants.

The structure of this book may surprise and even puzzle readers, because it doesn’t just relate the facts of the drainage. It seems to go off on tangents and even change styles at times. Why did you do that?

When I write, I’m propelled forward by the sounds of words and the rhythm of sentences, even as I’m committed to precision and clarity of meaning. I want to share my pleasure in the writing with the reader. Sometimes, when I’m conveying complex information, a simple, straight narrative is the best course. But at other times, say, when I want the reader to experience the sensation of being by the marsh, I can be more lyrical, or even fanciful. I like a little whimsy now and then. Also, the story isn’t just about the drainage of the marsh; it’s about the life of the marsh and of wetlands in general. So it’s not a tangent to write about Native life on the marshy landscape, or dairy cows grazing in the wet meadow, or binder twine, which is made of marsh reeds. The context of the drainage story is long and wide and deep. I chose to explore it the way an essayist does, by approaching it from many angles, “wheeling and diving like a hawk,” as Phillip Lopate says. A hawk even shows up in the story.

Upcoming author events:
Book Launch Celebration: Magers & Quinn, Thursday, May 12 at 7pm
Book Talk and Signing: Subtext, Tuesday, May 24 at 7 pm
Book Talk and Signing: Prairie Lights, Thursday, June 9 at 7 pm

Astonishing Apples

Posted byAlison Aten on 30 Sep 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, Food

Astonishing Apples Joan Donatelle

Astonishing Apples by Joan Donatelle is the newest cookbook in our Northern Plate series, which celebrates the bounty of the Upper Midwest by focusing on a single ingredient, exploring its historical uses as well as culinary applications across a range of dishes.

At Lunds & Byerlys cooking school, Joan Donatelle brings a focus on healthful and tasty dishes to her kitchen classrooms. There’s no better guide to this season’s apple abundance than Joan, whose fondness for the fruit goes beyond the standard slices-and-Brie or apple crisp. Below is her recipe for Roasted Pumpkin Apple Soup.

Joan will sign copies and share samples from her new cookbook at the following events. Click on the title’s hyperlink, above, for more information:

Thursday, October 1, 2015, from 5 to 6:30 pm
Outdoor Diva Night
Midwest Mountaineering

Saturday, October 3, 2015, from 1 to 3 pm
Café Minnesota, Minnesota History Center’s Heffelfinger Room

Sunday, October 4, 2015, from 9 am to 1 pm
Linden Hills Farmers Market

Saturday, October 10, 2015, at 12:30 and 2 pm
Baking Lab Demo with Joan Donatelle and Sue Doeden, author of Homemade with Honey
Mill City Museum Baking Lab
Free with museum admission

Roasted Pumpkin Apple Soup

It’s hard not to just use the versatile and delicious Honeycrisp all the time. I sometimes feel like I’m slighting the other available apples. Go ahead and substitute any firm, sweet-tart apple you like in this lovely starter.

Serves 10

1 (2-pound) baking pumpkin, quartered and seeded

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ½  pounds apples (see head note), cored and chopped, plus 1 for garnish

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 small shallots, chopped

1 rib celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage

½  teaspoon grated nutmeg

4 cups chicken stock

2 cups apple cider

¼  cup honey

1 tablespoon pepitas (pumpkin seeds), or substitute sunflower seeds

2 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil, or substitute walnut or olive oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Drizzle the pumpkin quarters with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Lay cut-side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for about 45 minutes. As the pumpkin is roasting, core and slice the garnish apple into 20 thin slices. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and lay on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for about 15 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool. When the pumpkin is tender, set aside to cool. Scoop out the flesh.

Meanwhile, in a large stockpot set over medium-high heat, warm remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the carrots, shallots, celery, chopped apples, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the vegetables and apples are beginning to soften, add the garlic, sage, and nutmeg. Stir for about 1 minute, until garlic is fragrant. Stir in the pumpkin, stock, and cider, cover the pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir in the honey.

Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. (Alternatively, work in batches to carefully puree the soup in a blender.) Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in warmed soup bowls. Garnish each serving with 2 slices of roasted apple, a pinch of pepitas, and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil.

Countdown to the Minnesota State Fair!

Posted byAlison Aten on 24 Aug 2015 | Tagged as: Authors

Rhoda's Rock Hunt Hungry CoyoteMinnesota Weather AlmanacState Fair

Meet MNHS Press authors at the Minnesota State Fair!

Please see the schedule below for details.


Monday, August 31, 10 am to 3 pm

Alphabet Forest

Cheryl Blackford, author of Hungry Coyote


Tuesday, September 1, 10 am to 3 pm

Alphabet Forest

Molly Beth Griffin, author of Rhoda’s Rock Hunt


Tuesday, September 2, 10 am to 3 pm

Alphabet Forest

Chris Monroe, illustrator of Big Little Brother and Big Little Mother


Friday, September 4, 11 am to 12 noon

MPR at the Minnesota State Fair

Tom Weber hosts Mark Seeley, author of Minnesota Weather Almanac, Second Edition from 11 am- 12 noon, followed by a book signing from 12noon-1 pm in Carousel Park!


And if you can’t wait until Thursday, check out our books and articles about
the Great Minnesota Get-Together:

State Fair: The Great Minnesota Get-Together, photos by Susan Lambert Miller with a foreword by Lorna Landvik

Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling

Related: Seed Queen: The Story of Crop Art and the Amazing Lillian Colton by Colleen Sheehy with a foreword by Karal Ann Marling

MNopedia: Minnesota State Fair: Origins and Traditions

And finally: MNHS presents History On-a-Schtick every day at 9:30 am at Schell’s Stage at West End Market

See you at the fair!

Sharing Family History

Posted byAlison Aten on 16 Jun 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, History, Interview

Sara DeLuca and her granddaughter Emma

Sara DeLuca and her granddaughter Emma

Today’s post is by Sara DeLuca, author of The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm. Sara will be touring Wisconsin later this month. (Click on the title link for her event schedule, media interviews, and book club guide.)

From Sara:

This photo of me with my granddaughter, Emma Drury, was taken at Folsom House in Taylors Falls, Minnesota, on April 25, 2015.  We were celebrating the recent publication of my book,  The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm. Based on a collection of family letters, the book is an intimate portrayal of family farm life in the region – first-person history, written as it was being lived. My mother’s letters to her eldest sister, beginning when she was seven and continuing throughout middle age, make a significant contribution to the story.

The Folsom House event on April 25 was very special to me, for several reasons.

Fifteen-year-old Emma planned and hosted my reading in this gracious home, built in 1855 by lumberman, historian, and Minnesota state senator W. H. C. Folsom. Five generations of the Folsom family occupied the house, which still contains their original furnishings, library, and personal effects. It is now operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society.

My parents, Harvey and Helen Hellerud, who farmed for decades in Polk County, Wisconsin, retired in 1976 and moved across the St. Croix River to Taylors Falls. As an accomplished pianist, my mother entertained Folsom House visitors on the Hews rectangular grand piano (shown in the background of this photo) on many occasions. She also served as a volunteer guide during the 1980s and 1990s. Her affiliation with the Taylors Falls Historical Society was a great joy to her during many productive years of retirement.

Now Helen Hellerud’s great-granddaughter Emma is volunteering at this beautifully preserved historic site. And I have enjoyed the privilege of sharing my book about a place that has been important to my family and history lovers throughout the Upper Midwest.

Here is a poem I wrote ten years ago, in recognition of a rich heritage, a craving for deep identity, and our interwoven lives.

Braiding Dandelions

We find a bright, prolific crops of dandelions

splashing the vacant lot behind my mother’s house.

She’s eighty-nine this spring, but she remembers being nine,

braiding yellow heads and milky stems, crowning

and necklacing herself with blooms.

Now she demonstrates for me

and for my grandchild Emma – six years old –

how you can braid an ornamental rope from flowers.

The trick, my mother says,

is working three stems at a time, all different lengths.

When one runs out you splice a new one in its place –

that way you never break the chain.

Emma plops down in the deep wet grass.

Mom squats.  I kneel

between the generations.

We laugh at rough beginnings, ragged endings,

but we persevere.  We practice,

practice till we get it right, Emma, Mom and me,

our heads bent low, lost

in a field of yellow tassels.

When our circles hold

we rise

and crown each other with our handiwork.

Urban Coyotes

Posted byAlison Aten on 22 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, Nature/Enviroment

Coyotes are smart, curious, and adaptable. They live on prairies, in forests, and on farmland. They even live in cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. City coyotes might make their homes in parks or in nature preserves or on golf courses—all places where they can find plenty of food and shelter. Sometimes they live in small family groups, and sometimes they live alone.

Hungry Coyote by Cheryl Blackford with illustrations by Laurie Caple offers kids a glimpse into the life of an urban coyote as he struggles to feed himself and his famished family.

We asked Cheryl and Laurie to share some of their inspiration for the book.

From Cheryl: cherylblackford

“The idea for this picture book came to me as I watched a lone coyote trot across a frozen lake one January morning. He turned his head to look at me, decided I was no threat, and continued on his way. Although we don’t often see the coyotes themselves, just signs of their presence such as scat on the trails, I saw him twice more. I wondered what he ate and how he lived. I did some research and became interested in urban coyotes and their success at living beside humans in many American cities. While many people are suspicious of coyotes (probably based upon their reputation as ‘tricksters’), or think of them as vermin, I admire the intelligence and adaptability of these animals. They thrive in many different natural habitats ranging from desert to lush grasslands, and now they’re also thriving in our cities. How could you not admire such a smart, successful creature?”

caple-with-coyote-pup_smallFrom Laurie:

“A fondness for nature provides the inspiration behind my artwork. I had the fascinating opportunity to spend time with one of only two known domesticated coyotes in the United States.  ’Wiley’ lives with Rick Hanestad and his family in western Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive from St. Paul. A National Geographic film crew recently spent a number of hours documenting his behavior.

“Wiley is very tame and handles well on a leash, just like a friendly pup.  He has never shown any type of aggressive behavior to humans and sleeps on a favorite recliner in the Hanestads’ living room!”

Cheryl and Laurie hope Hungry Coyote encourages readers to look at our own surroundings with fresh eyes and develop curiosity and respect for wildlife in our cities. They recommend the following links about urban coyotes:

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: Urban Coyotes

Project Coyote

Urban Coyote Research

The Humane Society

Brenda J. Child wins Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award

Posted byAlison Aten on 31 Mar 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Awards, Native American

My Grandfather's Knocking Sticks Brenda ChildWe’re delighted to note that My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation by Brenda J. Child has won the the seventh annual Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award.

Child uses her family’s own powerful stories to tell a different kind of history–one that puts her reader’s feet on the reservation. She shows how Ojibwe men and women on reservations around the Great Lakes sustained both their families and their cultural identity in the face of extreme prejudice and hardship.

Winners of  the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award cross multiple disciplines or fields of study, are relevant to contemporary North American Indian communities, and focus on American Indian Studies, modern tribal studies, modern biographies, tribal governments or federal Indian policy.

Dedicated in 1993, the Labriola National American Indian Data Center in the Arizona State University (ASU) Libraries is one of the only repositories within a public university library devoted to American Indian collections. The Labriola Center holds both primary and secondary sources on American Indians across North America. The Center’s primary purpose is to promote a better understanding of American Indian language, culture, social, political and economic issues. The Labriola National American Indian Data Center has been endowed by Frank and Mary Labriola whose wish has been that “the Labriola Center be a source of education and pride for all Native Americans.”

My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks is also a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.

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