Badger State: A Wisconsin Memoir

Windy City Reviews
Badger StateReviewed by Gabrielle Robinson.

Whether you are from the Badger or another state or, like me, from Berlin, you’ll enjoy and learn from Kathleen McDonough Mundo’s memoir about growing up in 1970s Racine, Wisconsin. She sees her life both as the vulnerable child she was and from the perspective of the successful attorney she became.

Kathleen is the youngest of six children in a working-class family struggling to make ends meet. But then, so were most of the other families around them. The first “character” in her story is their large old house that had “stairs and turns and rooms and corners in places you’d never expect.” The children loved it, and no one in the family seemed to care that it needed substantial repairs.

Since both her parents had to work, the children were left on their own in controlled chaos. This chaos included dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, parakeets, fish, whatever other animals they brought into the house, and a small marijuana farm an older brother ran in his closet. And, of course, fights among the siblings “who cared just enough about each other not to inflict permanent bodily injury.” Hardly big enough to reach the pedals, they managed to drive the family car through a fence and turn kitchen equipment into weapons. They “seemed to make a hobby out of turning the benign into dangerous” without ever seriously hurting each other or creating major damage. Instead, they learned to become independent, solve their own problems, and take of themselves.

In each chapter, Kathleen brings to life another scene from her childhood, reflecting that our memories seem to focus on the unusual and not the everyday. Sacred Heart School, definitively not “Catholic-lite,” terrified the kids with its formidable Sister Janet who never smiled. Another chapter focuses on smoking. With a chain-smoking mother, ashtrays overflowing, the children smoked freely. Unusual for a childhood memoir, Kathleen also describes the boredom of seemingly endless winters and even summer days where they just couldn’t find anything to do. Never good at sports, Kathleen came into her own in high school when she excelled in her studies, paving the way to escape Racine and the constrictions of her class. Today, however, with a family of her own, she loves to return to the Badger State.

A major theme that runs through her story and becomes explicit toward the end has to do with the disadvantaged lives of the working class. When after a divorce her mother waitressed at a Greek diner, adult Kathleen knows that “these women represented a large class of individuals who didn’t know what they didn’t know.” Too exhausted, they had no time to worry about others who were better off, who could afford health care, lawyers, insurance, and had time to take care of themselves. Moreover, they did not have friends or even acquaintances in that group who might help them with information and contacts.

The memoir gives glimpses into a small Wisconsin town in the 1970s and 1980s—they had a curfew in Racine back then?—and makes us think of our own childhoods. If you are interested in writing your own memoir, Badger State with its juxtaposition of scenes and switches in perspective can give you pointers and inspiration how to do that.

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