University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Stunt Reporters, Norwegians, and Loons

It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup.

The new book Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters,” by Kim Todd (HarperCollins), tells a story few may know. And although author Tom Wolfe would have us believe otherwise, the so-called New Journalism, with its distinct first-person point of view and stories told in scenes using copious detail and dialogue, was not invented in the 1970s by him, Truman Capote, or Hunter S. Thompson. Instead, it was practiced energetically and brilliantly 80 years earlier by young female reporters who made their reputations through exhaustively reported newspaper articles about their experiences seeking a (then illegal) abortion; getting committed to an insane asylum; working at textile sweatshops; and—perhaps most famously—setting a world travel record for global circumnavigation.

Kim Todd, a member of the U of M’s M.F.A. faculty and an award-winning nature writer, gives credit where it is so richly due here. In this thoroughly researched volume, she turns her careful attention to a collection of “girl stunt reporters” working in the late 19th century. Each defied the rigid gender roles of their times and dodged many other impediments to enjoy exciting, meaningful careers while also bringing attention to important U.S. social problems.

Nellie Bly, the adventurer/author who took part in that race around the world, is probably the best known of the group, although she undertook many other important pieces of journalism as well. Bly got herself committed to Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum for Women to report on it from the inside; exposed the political corruption that kept dangerous patent medicines on the market; and looked into the violent company response to the Pullman strike.

But in her book, Todd, to her credit, ranges far beyond Bly. She pulls in a fascinating collection of women reporters such as Eva McDonald, who exposed the low wages and myriad dangers of clothing factories in Minneapolis; Nell Nelson, who worked in and wrote about the horrible conditions of Chicago sweatshops; and Nora Marks, who fainted in downtown Chicago to demonstrate the need for a better ambulance service in that city. As for the intrepid young woman who described her various attempts to procure an abortion in 1888 and 1889 editions of the Chicago Tribune, Todd was never able to discover the identity of the real writer behind the series. To this day, she is still known only as Girl Reporter.

But we have Todd to thank for bringing to life her work, and that of the dozen or so other women who bravely blazed a trail for female journalists to follow.

And the rest...

After learning that Norway had been named the world’s happiest country, Norwegian-American writer Eric Dregni (M.A. ’03, M.F.A. ’07) returns to the nation—teenage son in tow—where he’d done a Fulbright 15 years earlier. The result is For the Love of Cod: A Father and Son’s Search for Norwegian Happiness (University of Minnesota).

While no place is perfect (darkness for six months, anyone?), Norway has created a more equitable social system with free health care and college and generous pensions and parental leave, among other benefits. Norwegians may not eat at restaurants as often or buy as many consumer goods as Americans, says Dregni, but they have found great security—and yes, happiness—from knowing their country will never let them starve or become homeless. As Dregni and son Eilif (born in Norway during that Fulbright year) make their way from Bergen to Trondheim and from to northernmost Bodo to Oslo, they learn to appreciate the Norwegian values that contribute to that contentment, including hytte (countryside vacation cottages), folktrygden (people’s insurance), and sakte (the slow life).

Anyone who has spent time on a northern Minnesota lake is familiar with the haunting cry of the loon. That sound, and their distinctive black and white coloring, is all most of us know about these elusive waterbirds. But now we have Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver by James D. Paruk (University of Minnesota Press).

Author Paruk is one of the world’s leading experts on the Common Loon, having studied them for almost 30 years. In this highly readable and well-organized volume, he kindly shares his vast expertise about their mating, nesting, migrating, and other habits.

And as for those calls? It turns out they’re not all alike, with wails, yodels, and tremolos.

One of the U of M’s best-known architectural alumni, William Pedersen (B.Arch. ’61), founded the New York-based firm Kohn, Pedersen, Fox, with two others some 45 years ago, which became famous for its commercial high-rise office buildings.

Gesture and Response: 25 Buildings by William Pedersen of KPF Architects (Oro Editions) is crammed with striking photographs. In it, Pedersen tells the stories of 25 of his favorite projects—many of them high-rises. Ranging from Chicago to Honolulu to Shanghai, his buildings are notable for their sensitive response to site and client. In a 2010 interview in Contract magazine, when asked about recent work that had been meaningful to him, Pedersen discussed the Science Teaching and Student Services Center at the U of M, which forms what he called “a gateway pair” at the campus’s East Bank entrance, along with Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum. Said Pedersen, “It was very rewarding to return to my alma mater at this point in my career.”

Although Mary Casanova (B.A. ’81) has long been a successful children’s book author, she has only recently turned to writing historical novels. Waterfall: A Novel (University of Minnesota) is the third, following Frozen and Ice-Out—all of them set near Rainy Lake, on the U.S. Canadian border by International Falls. In this novel, set in the early 1920s, 22-year-old Trinity Baird returns to her family’s island summer home on Rainy Lake after two years at a mental asylum, eager to prove her stability and respectability in order to gain parental permission to return to studying art and painting in Paris. Casanova makes her own home in the area, so her descriptions of Rainy Lake and environs are deeply evocative and keenly felt, as is her sensitivity to the main character's struggle for physical and artistic freedom in an era and an economic strata stultifying for women.

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