A rural expatriate’s struggle to reconcile family, home, love, and faith with the silence of the prairie land and its people
Melanie Hoffert longs for her North Dakota childhood home, with its grain trucks and empty main streets. A land where she imagines standing at the bottom of the ancient lake that preceded the prairie: crop rows become the patterned sand ripples of the lake floor; trees are the large alien plants reaching for the light; and the sky is the water’s vast surface, reflecting the sun. Like most rural kids, she followed the out-migration pattern to a better life. The prairie is a hard place to stay particularly if you are gay, and your home state is the last to know.
For Hoffert, returning home has not been easy. When the farmers ask if she’s found a “fella,” rather than explain that actually she dates women, she stops breathing and changes the subject. Meanwhile, as time passes, her hometown continues to lose more buildings to decay, growing to resemble the mouth of an old woman missing teeth. This loss prompts Hoffert to take a break from the city and spend a harvest season at her family’s farm. While home, working alongside her dad in the shop and listening to her mom warn, “Honey, you do not want to be a farmer,” Hoffert meets the people of the prairie. Her stories about returning home and exploring abandoned towns are woven into a coming-of-age tale about falling in love, making peace with faith, and belonging to a place where neighbors are as close as blood but are often unable to share their deepest truths.
In this evocative memoir, Hoffert offers a deeply personal and poignant meditation on land and community, taking readers on a journey of self-acceptance and reconciliation.
“A heartfelt coming-out story as well as an eloquent elegy to a rural way of life that is rapidly vanishing from the American landscape.” -Booklist
“In Prairie Silence, Melanie Hoffert shows how the landscapes of our childhood continue to speak to us, and through us, long after we’ve left them behind. In this beautifully written and deeply imagined memoir, Hoffert invites us back to her North Dakota farming community for a season of harvest, a personal journey of profound courage and grace.” -Judy Blunt, author of Breaking Clean
“Hoffert’s bittersweet and compelling memoir recalls her struggles at ending her silence and creating a fuller life for herself. She illuminates the quiet grace of the people and land she loves and mourns the passing of a way of life.” -Minneapolis Star Tribune
“The quiet, lyric prose of Melanie Hoffert’s Prairie Silence crept into my days, making it impossible for me to stop turning pages. This book is about looking for oneself in places we are so often afraid to venture. A beautiful debut from a brave new writer.” -Claire Bidwell Smith, author of The Rules of Inheritance
“This is a gorgeous book that evokes quiet country mornings and loud self-examination. . . . If you once believed that you can’t truly ever go home again, Prairie Silence is a book you’ll be eager to read.” -Washington Blade
“A heartfelt love song to a place and its people as well as an honest and rewarding rendering of the author’s interior landscape.” -Kirkus Reviews
“Hoffert’s intimate memoir of place reveals a personal journey both fraught and wondrous, and a present reality of surprising richness.” -Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of Telling
From Chapter 1: The Allure of Grain Trucks
“Do you think it’s weird that I want to drive a grain truck for a while” my friend Melissa asks me over the phone.
“A grain truck? Seriously” I tap my keyboard as I talk and notice that it is filthy, embarrassing almost. The keys are sticky and filled with crumbs. The entire board is splattered with coffee drips. Disgusting, I think.
I visualize Melissa, who is working in San Francisco, in a loft with high ceilings and little geometrical work stations lined with Macs. I imagine people wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses, suit coats, torn jeans, and sneakers, popping their head into her office and flashing white smiles against tanned skin. Melissa herself is covered with tattoos and wears only eighties-vintage clothing, an appearance probably more reflective of her passion for music and pop culture than her day job at a publishing house.
In contrast my office is in a closed, dark corner of a building in St. Paul, just across the river from my home in Minneapolis. My walls are neutral. My plants are dying. My view is a parking lot. “Your very own office? Our baby girl is so important!” my mom would exclaim, not noticing the depressing vanilla walls, crusty plants, or uninspiring view--thrilled by the fact that her baby girl has somehow managed to find herself an executive position with all of the perks. And standing in my office she would grab a piece of paper and ask me about my job again, even though it has been several years since I’ve been here. “I have to get it right, honey. Everyone always asks me. I just tell them you do something with computers.”
“Ma, I work on a computer. Everyone does.” I’ve told her. “Yes. Seriously,” Melissa continues, breaking into my thoughts.
“I was thinking I could come home--maybe just for a few months--and drive truck through harvest. I could live in that old farmhouse on my parents’ land and then figure out what to do afterwards.” She pauses. “You know--I think I’m just ready to get out. I’m ready to leave the city. Plus--seriously-- how hard would it be to learn how to drive the truck again? I drove when I was fourteen!”
I am, I realize, slightly impressed that my modest friend used to drive a grain truck as a kid. As a child I drove tractors but never trucks. My dad propped me behind the wheel of his John Deere tractor when they were short of hired men. I pulled the coulter chisel, a giant rake-like appendage, to loosen the soil before plow- ing. But I never had to drive a truck, where you had to be tall enough to reach the clutch while managing the long stick shift.
“Oh, my God. You’d be fine.” I give her the old you’d be fine’hand wave, as if she can see me. “Pick it back up in no time,” I say.
Melissa and I are both children of the North Dakota prairie. She grew up in a tiny town, Northwood, population 959, near the northern border of the state. I grew up on a farm eight miles outside of Wyndmere, population 533, on the southern border at about the same longitude as Northwood. Both small towns have a railroad that runs through the center, a grain elevator, a gas station, a Catholic church on one side of town, a Lutheran church on the other, and a few bars in between. In fact, our hometowns fit the description of most North Dakota small towns.
“I can see you driving a grain truck.” I continue, savoring the vision of my thirtysomething friend--a tattooed San Fran- cisco DJ with dyed black hair--driving a grain truck down gravel roads. Then I imagine all of us--those who left North Dakota--coming back, settling in with the farmers, filling the small-town bars at night, Schmidt beer in hand, talking about literature and the grain markets.
“You can” Melissa asks, in her typical soft and humble way, as if her ideas are never good until someone else agrees.
“Yes. In fact, maybe we should buy a little farm together. Drive truck for some cash.” I grab a tissue and start working on a coffee blot on my keyboard while I consider our long-term options. “Yeah. Maybe you could start a band and play in the bars at night. I mean, what else is going on there? Um--nothing. You’d probably be a hit! Then, after harvest, we could take a road trip. Tour North Dakota. I’ll be your crew.” I pause, not quite sure if crew is the word I am looking for; I am not into the music scene and feel immediately not so hip. “Or--I’ll do something. Carry your guitar? Play the drums? I don’t know.”
“Would you? Really? You’d come to North Dakota to be my roadie” she laughs.
“Yes! I will. Why not”
I think of my family farm during harvest right then, how harvest nights in the middle of the country seem almost cosmopolitan: bright, moving, awake, and alive. The moon glows like an orange pumpkin in the sky. Trucks light up the yard as they come in from the fields to empty their bounty. Once drained, they re- turn to the dark night for another hit of golden crop from the combines. All of this activity stirs the crisp, corn-filled air, which makes it smell like someone is baking sweet corn muffins from somewhere deep within the earth. All the while, real cooking is happening inside, where Mom is making hamburgers and fried onions for my dad and brother, who will come in exhausted and dirty well past ten o’clock.
“You know, Mo, I think you should make the move.” I turn my keyboard upside down and watch the crumbs fall out like dirty snow. “I think we should.”
Melissa and I both left North Dakota after college and moved to the city where we hoped to find something that existed beyond the prairie. At the time, this something was unspeakable--our shared secret. But now that we are in our thirties, it just might be time to return home--at least for a sabbatical of some sort--and confront the reasons we left.
“Yes! I think it is time to change our lives!” Melissa cheers in her calm way.
“I know. I could really use a break from work. From life. From the traffic and the busyness. I mean, how long can we go on like this” I am being dramatic now, resorting to our college chatter. It is easy to fall into this lingo with Melissa. In college we spent long nights together in her small, carpeted apartment, talking about our lives. She played her electric guitar without an amp. I sat across from her on her ragged couch, chewing sunflower seeds and spitting them into a blue mug. The next morning we would do the same. She sat in her ripped pajamas, picking at her electric guitar, and I drank coffee from the same blue mug. I often crashed for the night at her place, too tired to drive across town to my own bed in a small house I shared with three other women. I am about to remind her of this, of our time together, when someone pops a frenzied head in my office.
“Hey, ah, you got a minute”
I keep my eyes on the intruder and switch to my I-am-at- work-and-trying-to-be-professional voice, which I can barely pull out for Melissa. “Excuse me, Melissa. Can I interrupt you for just one minute? Yes. Sorry. I have a colleague at my door and have to run. Let’s talk soon and seriously consider our”--I look at the per- son standing in my door--”our future business proposition.”
She gets my drift. “Oh, sure. Yes. Call me later.”
After I deal with the person who wants to know if I can set up a meeting to discuss something we had just discussed, I look out of my window. I notice the landscape: the parking lot, the cement, the buildings, the way my eye is stopped by a delivery truck, blocking my view of the earth.
I am lucky, aren’t I? Let’s add it up. One: in my thirties and successful for my age, with a team of thirty and budget of millions. Two: a life in the city, with a home, a great relationship, and immediate access to restaurants and film. Three . . . three--what is three
I am happy, right? Why then does the thought of listening to AM radio and pulling my truck up to a grain elevator in a small North Dakota town have my heart fluttering with excitement? Why does the vision of sitting in a little North Dakota bar hitting a tambourine against my thigh, while Melissa sings to a crowd of men in John Deere hats and women in oversized sweatshirts, make me ache with purpose
I throw my tissue away, take a breath, accept my dirty key- board, and go back to work. Both Melissa and I know that our daydream of another life--in this case, returning to a past life-- will probably only carry us through the next hour. Returning home is impossible.
Over the last ten 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. Every Sunday morning Jerome, the plump man at church, asks my mom how I’m doing. My high school teacher still remembers the state speech award I received in eleventh grade. My neighbor Arlene sends me cards inviting me to stop by for homemade buns the next time I am home. I no longer live with these people, but they still 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 every- thing, 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.
The longer I drag my feet on this issue--my confession--the fewer people there are left to tell. Rural North Dakota--well, the whole middle of the country for that matter--has been emptying faster than the draining of a butchered cow. A 2008 National Geographic issue ran an article called “The Emptied Prairie,” which featured the rural areas of my home state in a painfully irreversible population decline. The pictures in the article showed abandoned farmhouses in hauntingly dilapidated conditions, barren except for a few signs of life: a dusty doll, a white nightgown hanging in a bare room, an old woman looking forlorn out of a window onto the empty prairie. The pictures reminded me of villages left behind after military raids: one minute there is life and normalcy, the next minute there is stillness and emptiness.
Some attribute this loss to economics or lack of opportunity for young people. I think this emptying--at a cellular or even metaphysical level--has something to do with an even deeper issue: prairie silence.
- Click here to listen to a commentary on marriage equality in Minnesota by Hoffert on Minnesota Public Radio
- Click here to listen to Hoffert on Minnesota Public Radio's "Lake Effect"
- Click here to see Shelf Awareness feature the Prairie Silence trailer on its website on December 20, 2012