Lost Without the River
By Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic. (She Writes Press, 271 pages, $16.95.)
I may never be able to sort out whether I enjoyed this memoir because I also grew up on a South Dakota dairy farm, or because author Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic has captured something universal here. We'll go with the latter, because this is, in truth, a study of family ties and geographic ties that are common to many.
There is a quietude to this memoir that speaks to the Northern Plains, but the themes exist everywhere: the odd couplings that become a marriage, relationships among siblings that irk and support and surprise, and the arc of watching your parents succeed and cope and age. The Hoffbecks farmed near Big Stone City, just over the Minnesota border. Scoblic has a fine memory for the simplest telling details and blessedly avoids the temptation of ennobling the rustic life with florid prose.
"My mother always carefully brushed the little heaps of flour off the breadboard back into the flour bin after finishing a baking project." Such a humdrum memory, but it reveals much about farm life, women's lives, hard times and values. The chapters about the author's mother, Myrtle, are especially powerful. There's a conversational randomness to how Scoblic chooses to tell her story, which mostly works. A chapter about her mother's home-baked beans comes out of nowhere but is a joy to read. A longtime resident of New York City, Scoblic mines the theme of the power of place, specifically the river that traced through their farm.
None of the kids remained in South Dakota, and she rightly notes it takes "a great deal of emotional courage to return to that spot where we grew up," what with how the agricultural economy has foundered. Writing this memoir was no doubt an act of quiet courage, and Scoblic strikes that careful balance between objectivity and love that is essential to preserving such stories.
Queer Voices: Poetry, Prose, and Pride
Edited by Andrea Jenkins, John Medeiros and Lisa Marie Brimmer. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 218 pages, $18.95.)
For 26 years, the monthly Queer Voices reading series has given Minnesota's LGBTQIA+ writers a safe space to experiment. So it's appropriate that this collection from 44 of the series' writers, almost all of whom are as identified as "award-winning," is a mixed bag. Poetry, essays, fiction and autobiography mingle in "Queer Voices: Poetry, Prose, and Pride," which is organized alphabetically by author name. Perhaps, like many of the writers, the pieces themselves resist labels?
For instance, several poems assume the form of prose and John Medeiros' assured "Losing Dylan" starts like an autobiographical essay until a turn toward magical realism identifies it as fiction. Others are easier to peg: Rachel Gold's "Kissing Kate Bornstein" is a tart remembrance of Gold's journey to becoming a "gender outlaw." Venus de Mars' "Late Night" is a horrifyingly beautiful tale of gender dysphoria-fueled self-mutilation. And Catherine Lundoff's "Strange, but Not a Stranger" is a droll but instructive response from a woman who has been told, "I've decided to stop hating you for being bisexual."
In general, the nonfiction pieces are the surest, but the diversity of the collection makes it stronger, just as it does the LGBTQIA+ community that will soon celebrate Pride.
Events: 7 p.m. May 14, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.; 7 p.m. June 18, Minneapolis Central Library.