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Prairie Silence: A Memoir, by Melanie Hoeffert.

July 5, 2012

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2012 1:58 pm

    It’s interesting that you’ve brought this book to our attention at this time. The Tatler magazine has a front page article this month about the difficulty that lesbians have in being accepted in the more open way that gay men are nowadays, so it is a topic that has been much aired in the UK this past week. There concern is public acceptance, this would seem to be much more about the private acceptance within your own small community. The two together would make a good pairing.

    • July 6, 2012 10:38 am

      Good timing. In Hoeffert’s small town, public and private distinctions are not very sharp, but the need to be recognized is the same.

  2. July 5, 2012 3:30 pm

    Actually the publisher is the non-profit, progressive indie publisher Beacon Press, which is distributed –but not owned– by Random House.

    • July 6, 2012 10:10 am

      I apoligize for my mistake and will correct it. Thanks for telling me. I have read and appreciated books from Beacon Press for years and certainly didn’t mean to slight them.

  3. July 7, 2012 6:24 pm

    A good and analytical review. Lesbian and gay rights are controversial issues in my country, with deep cutural as well as religious undertones. On the whole we are not accepting of them and I dare say that my views are ambivalent, leaning towards the biblical take yet recognising that we must love all men or women equally.

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