Prairie Silence: A Memoir, by Melanie Hoeffert.
Prairie Silence: A Memoir, by Melanie Hoeffert. Beacon Press, 2012.
A fresh memoir about a young woman reconciling her love for her roots on the North Dakota prairie with her lesbian identity, which she feels she needs to silence there.
Like many of us who have left our rural pasts, Melanie Hoeffert is a young woman with a good life in the city who longs to return to the North Dakota prairies of her childhood. Part of what holds her back is the fact that no one in her home community can understand why she has not married, much less that she is a lesbian. None the less, she takes a month leave from her good, but stressful, job and returns “to help with the harvest.” Along with assisting at the family farm, she explores her attraction to rural life and how being a lesbian isolates her from so much she loves about her North Dakota prairie roots. In alternating chapters she writes about the month she spent at the farm and her memories of her childhood and adolescence, especially about her sense of what it meant to be a lesbian. In this way being a lesbian is interwoven into Hoeffert’s conversations and thoughts and becomes part a larger whole, as natural as the prairie and the brilliant northern lights.
I admire Hoeffert’s ability to write about her sexuality in such a holistic manner. I hope her book helps others think about same-sex love as she does. Some of Hoeffert’s memories, however, reveal the problems that she and others have in reaching this point. As a teenager, she became involved in an aggressively Christian group, one that assumed its members were saved and no one else was. Among those loudly excluded were lesbians, and as a counselor at church camp, Hoeffert worked hard at hiding that aspect of herself. Finally she rejects these people and their narrow views. From my perspective, however, the damage was done. She retained her spirituality, but continued to believe she had to hide her sexuality. Beginning to talk about it during her month on the farm helped her move beyond her silence into more community acceptance than she had expected.
Writing a memoir is a dramatic way of ending silence, and Hoeffert is to be commended for undertaking it. She is a talented young writer, but sometimes I wish she had been able to articulate and explore more deeply the connections and complexities of her story. For example, silence is a major theme in this book, sometimes a welcome force and sometimes a negative one. At times Hoeffert is comfortable in the silence of the prairie and at others she is trying to bridge the gulfs that her own silence has created between her and the people of the prairie. I wish Hoeffert had done more to bridge the contradiction that lies at the heart of her novel. And I wish she had explored more critically the damage done by her experience with people who had a rabid hatred of love between people of the same sex. The distance needed for such analysis takes time, however. I expect her next book to be even more integrated than this one.
I recommend Prairie Silence to readers who share Hoeffert’s love of the prairie and life there and to those wanting to understand one woman’s journey as a young lesbian.
Read as an ebook from Edelwiess.