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The gathering in the library rotunda on Friday was lucky. They were briefly taken out from the blizzard of Duluth, into the story of Andrea and her family; the “main character� of Cheryl Strayed’s new book, “Torch�. Strayed read a chapter from her novel, which gave her audience a look at a woman who has been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal cancer and will soon begin chemotherapy.
Before reading, Strayed talked a bit about herself and her life. “This is an interesting place to be reading,� she began.
Strayed grew up in the town of McGregor, Minnesota, just about twenty miles from Duluth, claiming to live an “unromantic life.� Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, had two other children and an abusive husband. She left him in her mid twenties, while all three kids were under the age of seven. They moved to a home with no running water or electricity.
As a girl Strayed complained about their primitive life style. Her mother simply responded with, “it builds character.�
“Of course when your character’s being built, you never like it,� Strayed chuckled, admitting that her mother had given her a valuable perspective on the world.
When Strayed decided to attend college at the University of St. Thomas, they found out that this allowed her mother to take classes there for free. Bobbi did not have a college degree, and jumped at the opportunity, although Strayed was hesitant. Still she gave her mother all her assignments of her senior year of high school to prepare. The two attended college together that fall.
Both mother and daughter decided that St. Thomas was not the right fit. Strayed transferred to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, while her mother transferred to the U of M Duluth.
Over the spring break of their senior year, Strayed’s mother caught a cold, which developed into a backache and then terminal cancer. She passed away just before receiving her diploma, which Strayed accepted for her.
Strayed’s return to UMD was well received. The room fell silent as she read a bit of her novel aloud.
“It was the story I had to tell,� she said. Although the characters in it are fictional, she drew upon her own life for raw material.
After the reading Strayed asked for questions from the audience. Questions touched on topics of her writing process, publishing process, how she knew she wanted to tell this story, and the role of feminism in life, and the creative process. Afterwards, Strayed and her husband mingled with her audience.
Strayed has been published in the New York Times, Allure, Self, The Sun, and Nerve magazines. She has also worked at a sexual violence center in Minneapolis and as a political organizer for women’s advocacy groups. On top of that, her creative nonfiction has been selected twice for the Best American Essays, and wrote the opening piece in The Best New American Voices 2003.

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