University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Epic Journey: A Childhood Memoir and Other Minnesota Stories

It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup

Memoirs about abusive and neglected childhoods are hardly a rare commodity. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and Tara Westover’s Educated—great books all— spring immediately to mind, each featuring a girl-child narrator/adult author wrestling with her painful early years. But rarely have I read a memoir as delicately wrought and convincingly told from a child’s point of view as Jeannine Ouellette’s The Part That Burns: a memoir in fragments (Split/Lip Press).

Ouellette, a longtime Minneapolis writer and teacher, studied journalism at the University of Minnesota and now works as an editor here. Born in 1968 in Duluth, she was the product of teenage parents who split while she was still a preschooler, which led to a childhood spent hopping among her parents’ various houses and apartments in Wyoming and Minnesota and, worse, among the various stepfathers and boyfriends attached to her mentally ill mother.

The book starts with a capsulated version of her childhood, cleverly told through a series of dogs representing each period. The fat Cairn Terrier of chapter one belongs to Ouellette’s mother in her later years, by which time she had returned to her native Duluth and was living alone in a squalid apartment. A mutt named Petey is next, a companion of Ouellette’s early childhood who is tormented by her stepfather, Mafia—a foreshadowing of Mafia’s malevolent nature, which makes up a dark subtheme.

By the time the author has worked her way through Brandy the retriever, Charlie the Pekingese, Trixie the Scottish Terrier, and Smokey the Keeshond, the reader has developed a deep understanding of the author’s peripatetic, neglected childhood. Shuttled among a troubled mother allied with equally troubled men, an uninvolved father, and stepmother who clearly prefers her own children, Ouellette somehow manages to grow up fairly intact, enroll in college, and marry (at a young age) a kind if overbearing man.

Later in the book, we get further glimpses into the author’s life, both through a succession of stories about New Year’s Eves and a mother-daughter conversational reminiscence between Ouellette and her youngest child, Lillian Ouellette-Howitz.

It is only when Ouellette, then in her 20s, produces Lillian and her two siblings in quick succession that she comes fully into her own, struggling mightily—and successfully—to grow into the sort of attentive, engaged, deeply loving mother she herself had always longed for.

Along the way, the reader will enjoy a compelling story full of fascinating characters, always rooting for the brave, resilient girl at its heart.

A very different challenge is represented in Hudson Bay Bound: Two Women, One Dog, Two Thousand Miles to the Arctic (University of Minnesota Press), Natalie Warren’s (Ph.D. expected in ’23) tale of the challenging canoe trip she and Ann Raiho undertook from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay. Inspired by Eric Sevareid’s 1935 classic, Canoeing with the Cree, the college friends set out to follow his 2,000-mile route from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay—the first women to make the expedition. Along the way they encounter the ecological devastation of the Minnesota River, the dangers of huge Lake Winnipeg, and some tense times as teammates (at one point they were communicating only by written notes), but also the glorious sights of moose, polar bears, Northern lights, pearly pink sunrises, and wild, free-flowing waters.

Southwest of Raiho and Warren’s voyage lies the land of the Dakota, which they call Mni Sota Makoce. In Daybreak Woman: An Anglo-Dakota Life, (Minnesota Historical Society Press) Jane Lamm Carroll (M.A. ’83, Ph.D. ’91) tells the remarkable story of Anpao Hiyaye Win or Jane Anderson Robertson, a Dakota/white woman whose life spanned most of the 19th century and bridged two worlds. In this book, Carroll ably accomplishes what she sets out to do: to “put women and Dakota people back into the narrative of Minnesota history.”

Tales of more recent Minnesotans are featured in Staring Down the Tiger: Stories of Hmong American Women (University of Minnesota Press), edited by Pa Der Vang (M.S.W. ’03, Ph.D. ’07).

This collection of 33 stories, essays, and poems by Hmong women is the second publication assembled by the St. Paul-based organization Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together. Contributors range from 70-year-old Song Yang, whose first husband was killed in Laos during the Vietnam War, to Douachee Vang, a far younger woman for whom that country is familiar only as a setting for stories told by older relatives. Throughout the book are themes of immigration and displacement—and the stories of many more women forced to bridge two worlds.

For a strong contrast—the tales of one white man firmly ensconced in one Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood—pick up a copy of Fear and Loving in South Minneapolis (University of Minnesota Press) by Jim Walsh (B.A. ’90).

In this collection of his columns from the now defunct Minneapolis community newspaper the Southwest Journal, readers will come to know and love the people and places of the author’s Lake Harriet neighborhood. Enjoy his evocative descriptions of night swimming, neighborhood musical jams, the magical Lake Harriet rose garden, and park benches dedicated to lost hometown rockers—and try not to be jarred by his occasional abrupt departures to a friend’s Montana cabin or the Bogotá hostel where he lived while adopting his children.

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) recently completed Strokeland, a memoir of her husband’s life-altering stroke and its aftermath.

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