Feeling disconnected from her professional and personal life in Minneapolis, a place where North Dakota native Melanie Hoffert felt "saturated with beauty but trapped in a job and life that didn't seem to suit her soul," the author returns home for a month's respite. Now in her 30s, the tug of home and the lure of harsh landscape are still strong. Hoffert chronicles her observations and revelations in her compelling narrative, "Prairie Silence: A Rural Expatriate's Journey to Reconcile Home, Love, and Faith."
Hoffert followed the route of many small-town kids. After attending college, she established a satisfying life in the city. And though at 19 Hoffert told her mother she was gay, whenever she returned home, conversation focused on everything but her social life, a fact that nagged at her.
Returning home and helping with the harvest also allows her time to roam the countryside and spend time writing -- and, not incidentally, to flush out the reasons behind her silence surrounding her sexuality.
When not helping her family with harvest, Hoffert spends time with neighbors and friends listening to their stories. She discovers their quiet faith and loyalty to one another and the land, what she calls a "genetically present sense of duty in people who work the land." As she ponders the reasons for the exodus from North Dakota, she questions her own role in the seemingly "irreversible population decline."
"Some people 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."
Faith in North Dakota, during Hoffert's early years, was straightforward. Neighbors and friends were members of one of three churches: Lutheran, Methodist or Catholic. But Hoffert began attending youth gatherings sponsored by a group of born-again Christians. She was enthralled by the Christian music, her growing feelings for a young girlfriend and God. Yet when the topic of homosexuality came up at a religious retreat, Hoffert was confused and uncomfortable. She wanted to tell her friend about her feelings, but instead remained silent. "I could have, but I didn't. We were kids in the middle of the prairie and I didn't have the words."
After a shocking sexual encounter in college, Hoffert spent the summer at a church camp. She was unsettled by the experience, and it led her to delve into other religions. "These explorations have fortunately allowed me to retain a reverence for mystery. And my reverence for mystery has allowed me to retain a connection to something good, something there."
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. "Somehow I know, though I haven't said it out loud, that I am standing in the land of my past, in the land of my childhood, not the land of my present."
Julie Foster is a transplanted Midwesterner and freelance book critic living in Sacramento, Calif.