Review: ‘Prairie Silence’ by Melanie Hoffert

by Kim on January 8, 2013 · 8 comments

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Title: Prairie Silence: A Rural Expatriate’s Journey to Reconcile Home, Love, and Faith
Author: Melanie Hoffert
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2013
Publisher: Beacon Press
Acquired: Book Expo America
Rating: ★★★★☆

Review: Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota, a town of around 500 people on the edge of the prairie. Like many young people in rural America, Hoffert became part of a growing pattern of out-migration, moving to the Twin Cities to pursue her career and escape the pressured silence that surrounded her deepest secret:

Over the last 10 years I have been trying to resolve a seemingly simple dilemma: how to tell the state of North Dakota that I am gay. This might sound crazy, but if you are from the heart of the country you might understand that you are part of a world that is more connected than any social networking phenomenon of the digital age. Your personal profile is peeked at, commented on, and updated at every hometown shower, funeral, wedding, pig roast, street dance, and Sunday morning church service – even if you don’t live in the small town anymore.

Living in the city I’ve learned that it is possible to retreat from the world and become anonymous. The more people, the more control I have over my identity – even to the point of erasing it. Yet I can never escape the world where I am from. … I no longer live with these people, but they will live with me. I will never be anonymous, and yet – I will never be known either.

In this part of the world, if you have a secret, it does not necessarily belong to you or your family or even God. It belongs to the place you are from, because eventually to resolve everything, to truly find peace, you must come to terms with the place your inner soul calls home. In my case, this place is the North Dakota prairie.

In Prairie Silence, Hoffert chronicles her journey home to North Dakota to help her family with the harvest and her process of coming to terms with the veil of silence she and her community, together, pulled over her identity. To tell this story, Hoffert also looks back to her teenage exploration of her sexuality and her faith, and how those formative experiences affected her decisions to leave home and return again.

I picked up a copy of Prairie Silence at Book Expo America last May because I have a growing interest in stories about rural life. I grew up in the Twin Cities, but went to college and currently live in a small town just on the edge of the prairie, within 100 miles of the town near where Hoffert grew up. I’m still a rural outsider – it takes years, it seems, for people to forget that you come from somewhere else – but I like to read stories about people who have made the decision to leave a rural home or decide to come back.

At the time I picked up the book, I didn’t realize that Hoffert’s sexuality and faith would be part of this story, but by the time I read it those parts made the book even more appealing. This November, Minnesota voters considered a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Although the amendment didn’t pass state-wide, 75 of Minnesota 87 counties came out in favor of the amendment (most of the “no” votes came in the heavily populated metro counties).

In my small town, the debate over the amendment was deeply personal, and, for many people, deeply connected to their Christian faith. I’ve wanted to try and understand this better, and I appreciated how honestly Hoffert and the people she wrote about talked about these emotional and difficult topics.

But there are many more reasons to admire this book outside the personal interest I brought to the story. Hoffert does a lovely job pacing the back-and-forth between her current time on the farm and her childhood memories; every chapter ends at a place where I want to keep turning the pages long after it was time for me to go to bed, and the complicated feelings that accompany her first deep female friendship are the kinds of feelings anyone who has been a teenager in love can relate to.

Throughout the book, Hoffert grows to realize that the prairie silence of her youth – her family and friends tendency to avoid issues or sidestep uncomfortable conversations – is not the fault of one person or one group of people. Hoffert’s own fear contributes to the silence, developing into a memoir that doesn’t place blame or abdicate fault the way some authors seem to do.

Prairie Silence doesn’t have a neat conclusion – an honest journey of self-acceptance and reconciliation likely doesn’t have a Hollywood climax of hugs and aired feelings – but it does come to a point of hope, a equilibrium between understanding what has happened and knowing that, with work, these relationships can continue to improve.

Related Reading: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott | Coop and Population: 485 by Michael Perry | Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeffrey Chu (March 2013)

Other Reviews: Kirkus Book Reviews | aobiblioclassique |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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