I saw an advertisement for this book on the sidebar of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s website. Any book with the word ‘prairie’ or ‘plains’ in the title catches my eye. Although I grew up in an urban environment, my family spent many hours driving back and forth between Chicago and Plattsmouth, Nebraska where we spent a lot of time visiting friends that were like family. I loved those drives through what others consider flyover country. We made the drive out there at least once a year and running around the comparatively small town of Plattsmouth made me feel like a country girl.
As an adult, I lived in Lincoln, NE for a couple of years and spent my free time driving around the dirt roads and exploring abandoned farmsteads in Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota, only rarely all the way up into North Dakota. I love dirt roads and farms and small towns. I feel like they’re a part of me, but I’ve never been a part of them. I’ve only ever been a visitor.
Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota. I don’t know what the population was when she was growing up, but the 2010 census puts it at 429. Prairie Silence is her effort to try to figure out why it was and is so hard for her to find her voice in her hometown.
Her memoir is about how the silence of the land and the people who work it contribute to the factors that drive young people away from the land and into cities. It’s about how the silence of her family conditioned her not to know how to talk about her life, her emotions, her differences from others. She’s also a lesbian and knew from the young age of four that she was destined to love women. This, no doubt, compounded the silence. Don’t expect a memoir of active abuse, because this is nothing like that.
There’s a scene when Melanie is an adult coming home to visit where her mother puts the blame for the silence on her: I didn’t ask about your life, she says because you don’t talk about your life. Classic. What came first, the chicken or the egg? At first, what the mom says made sense, it sounded reasonable in the context of the story, but the more I thought about it the more it annoyed me.
Reading this memoir solidified my belief that older generations need to speak up, ask questions, create the space for younger generations to talk, hear, breathe. Even if younger people seem like they’re not listening, it’s important for older folks to share their emotions. Maybe if older generations would speak their truth, would share their wisdom rather than give sermons or orders, share their own experiences of emotions, perhaps we could chip away at this cycle of familial and societal silence. It’s an emotional version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that is no longer needed.
It seems that many families have this silence, that the prairies of North Dakota are not necessarily unique in this, but for Hoffert, the connection is there and she explores it, exposes it. Place is unique. This memoir is both funny and sad, but not tragic. Well, at least it’s not capital T tragic. Melanie lived to write about her struggle. Too many don’t.
Prairie Silence is reflective and questioning. This is the first LGBT memoir that I’ve come across that grapples with the issue of place and how place shapes us and impacts our coming out as well as our acceptance of self and growing into who we want to become. I’ve read memoirs or essays that touch on silence, but not in a way that ties it so strongly to sexual orientation and place.
When I first finished reading Prairie Silence I wrote in my journal, “Fabulous attempt to put feelings into words and to try to figure out what one is truly feeling in the first place. Will have to let this one sink in for a few days before writing about it.” A month later and I feel like I’m still letting it sink in.
Last night I was fortunate to attend a reading that Hoffert gave at Women & Children First along with her “literary midwife” and former writing teacher Barrie Jean Borich. Hoffert said that she wrote about her experience and how she couldn’t break through the silence precisely because she couldn’t break through the silence. I like that. It’s honest. She’s still working on her silence. If we’re honest, aren’t we all, in one way or another?
|Melanie Hoffert at Women & Children First 4/12/13|
And here’s the trailer for the book:
Prairie Silence: A Memoir
Beacon Press, January 2013
Source: Library copy