University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Surrogates, Violence, and Immigrants

It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup

The popularity of surrogacy among middle-aged Hollywood actors has all but normalized the experience in American culture. But in reality, there is nothing simple about having another woman carry your baby, a fact beautifully explored in The Surrogate (Harper), the first novel of Toni Halleen (J.D. ’88).

Although her protagonist is a Minneapolis journalist instead of a movie star, the story starts familiarly enough: 40-something childless woman (Ruth) enters late marriage with lawyer Hal; he has two kids, but she longs for a baby of her own. Sex doesn’t lead to pregnancy, nor does IVF. Adoption is dismissed because, as Ruth puts it, “you’re never sure what you’re getting, genetically.”

Enter Cally, a broke, unmarried 20-year-old in desperate need of money for college. Before long, Hal has drafted a lengthy surrogacy contract and Cally is pregnant. The book opens dramatically, with Cally making a daring escape from her hospital room just hours after giving birth to a baby girl she names Nell.

After calling on her ex-boyfriend, Digger, to supply the getaway car, the two young people plus baby Nell hit the road for Duluth on a frosty winter night while Ruth and Hal, alerted to their disappearance, freak out back in Minneapolis. Although Cally had fully intended to hand over her infant after giving birth, she finds out that doing so isn’t quite as simple as she had assumed. When Digger, shocked by the kidnapping, asks if she no longer wants the money, Cally replies, “I do. But when I saw her, and the way she looked at me, I just . . . couldn’t.”

Halleen skillfully conveys the feelings and impulses of both women: There is no bad guy here, and you’ll find yourself rooting for Ruth and Cally. The men are not as skillfully drawn, seeming more interchangeable than three-dimensional characters. And though the novel slows down toward the end, and its conclusion is rather pat, overall The Surrogate is a compelling and thought-provoking read.

And the rest. . . .

2020 was one of the most unsettling years in recent history. And nowhere was that truer than in Minneapolis, where the murder of George Floyd and its subsequent racial reckoning rocked the town, leading to much soul searching about the pernicious racism woven through U.S. culture. We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World (University of Minnesota Press), edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura, is an attempt to articulate and reflect on that trauma, with essays and poems from an impressive group of Indigenous writers and writers of color, including Louise Erdrich, Shannon Gibney, and Kao Kalia Yang.

Independent publisher Milkweed Editions was born 40 years ago from a literary and visual arts journal called Milkweed Chronicle. The compelling story of how this venerable publishing company developed and grew is told by cofounder Emilie Buchwald (Ph.D. ’71) in her new book A Milkweed Chronicle: The Formative Years of a Literary Nonprofit Press (Milkweed Editions).

With cofounder Randy Scholes, the journal successfully published a wide range of poetry, photographs, drawings, and more before being eliminated in 1987 in favor of its rapidly growing book publishing arm. In A Milkweed Chronicle, Buchwald—now retired and in her 80s—relates the exciting early days of both the journal and the press, when they published such local luminaries as Paul Gruchow, Carol Bly, and Bill Holm, as well as award-winning books such as Patricia Hampl’s Spillville and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948.

Poet, author, and editor Sun Yung Shin and the Minnesota Historical Society Press have already given us one excellent anthology—A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Now they have produced another, this one focused on the abiding importance and cultural meaning of food, particularly for immigrants. In What We Hunger For: Refugee and Immigrant Stories about Food and Family (Minnesota Historical Society Press), Yung Shin (who, along with many of this book’s contributors, has University of Minnesota connections) includes offerings from Hmong, Afghani, Sri Lankan, and Haitian writers, among others. They write of longing for the dishes of their homelands and struggling to find the proper ingredients for them in the U.S. This was particularly tough for the many Hmong and Vietnamese people who arrived in the Twin Cities in the late ’70s. One essayist writes of trying to prepare Banh Mi using the squishy loaves of bread that were all local groceries had to offer, and her excitement when the first French/Vietnamese bakery opened in St. Paul.

Going back to the land is an American impulse that has never truly disappeared. In Woodsqueer (Trinity University Press), writer Gretchen Legler (M.A. ’91, Ph.D. ’94)—long drawn to the outdoors and the author of All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook and On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica—writes about one such experiment. Several years ago, she forged an agrarian life on 80 acres in backwoods Maine. Legler’s title has a double meaning: Woodsqueer is used to describe the strange mindset of a person who has lived in the wild for an extended period, but it may also describe Legler and her partner. What follows is in part a predictable rural tale of chopping wood, raising chickens, and foraging for mushrooms, but it is skillfully interwoven with the dramatic personal saga of Legler’s past relationships, ill-begotten love affairs, and ultimately, happy marriage to Ruth.

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer and author of the memoir Strokeland.

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