“Prairie Silence” provides a fascinating insight into a young woman’s mind as she matures through high school and college, becomes aware of her sexual orientation, and yearns for the life that now exists only in her childhood memories.
First, I must admit a bias. The author, Melanie Hoffert, and I have been colleagues and friends for the past dozen years. She asked me to review and critique several of her initial drafts, and we’ve had many conversations about life, growing up in rural North Dakota, and the changing rural landscape.
Often, her memoir reads like her very personal reflections on life. In one chapter, she journals observations about her home town, Wyndmere, and the neighboring communities. In another, she describes a conversation with Joel Heitkamp, the “redneck redhead,” over beer at Paula’s in Mooreton.
In another, she relates a conversation with a “retired” farmer — a retirement that is simply a “graduation of sorts into a slower pace.” In yet another, she describes how her brother convinces her to climb an elevator leg so she can view the prairie from a 75-foot high platform swaying in the wind. In others, she recalls her affection for women during her 20s and early 30s. And, in the middle of a chapter, she digresses into a conversation with her mother about heaven and hell.
Melanie also describes interesting insights that are triggered by routine events. When visiting a local cemetery, she muses: “The headstones have stayed with me as a haunting reminder that in the end, all of our longings, fears, loves, and silences may be summarized by a few words chosen by other people and etched into stone.”
Sitting at the top of the elevator leg, she thinks: “I can spread my arms, stretch my body to the sky in a sort of advance yoga pose that carries me into infinity. This freedom is what I've been craving. And perhaps I have just learned — in a palpable way — that freedom can never be the fruit of routine, only risk.”
Melanie’s similes breathe life into her observations during her month-long sabbatical on the farm of her parents and brother. When glancing at the prairie sky, she noticed that the “Moon glows like an orange pumpkin in the sky.” At a community dance, she commented: “People pulled me out to dance and bounced me around like a tetherball.”
When driving through her hometown, she thought: “Today my hometown’s main street resembles the mouth of an old woman who is missing most of her teeth.” When entering the Rutland General Store, she remembers: “I smile like I’m saying ‘cheese’ for a photo.”
Woven throughout the memoir is her inner struggle concerning two issues that she could not easily discuss with her family and others in her hometown: her evolving religious beliefs and her sexual orientation.
During her teen years, she was confident of her relationship with God. However, as the years passed, she began to question her childhood faith and organized religion. She eloquently summarizes this internal struggle in only one paragraph:
“My gradual estrangement from the structured church was not immediate, but long, lingering, and thoughtful. I now marvel at the human soul’s ability to recognize injustice, immorality, and corruption, even when those traits are hidden within the most confusing oxymoron imaginable: power-hungry, mind-controlling, corporation-like entities shrouded in the façade of divinity. Not all churches or religious institutions should be described this way, but if you dare deconstruct the story, dare pull at the dangling threads of the human institutions, oftentimes — as numerous scholars, writers, and seekers have discovered and articulated better than I can here — the truths that unravel can be hard to accept.”
Also, and likely related to her struggle of faith, was her internal debate about coming out or keeping the secret. She initially believed silence protected her family: “The story that will mark me as different, that will call for me to make a covenant with my soul to keep a secret from my family in order to protect them from something that was not supposed to be in North Dakota.” Yet, she wanted to explain to her family and community: “I have been trying to resolve a seemingly simple dilemma: how to tell the state of North Dakota that I am gay.”
Melanie’s struggle was, unfortunately, understandable. She was likely lectured from the pulpit, as a child, that homosexuals are sinners. Her college pastor, during a counseling session, cautioned that homosexuality is a sin. When attending Bible camp, a co-worker explained that “crime, rape, murder, and homosexuality…. are all horrendous sins and … are changing the makeup of society.”
To protect herself and others in a society that has not yet come to terms with the reality that many of God's children are gay, she retreated into silence that became a comfort — and a barrier.
When recalling a failed effort to candidly talk with her mother, she realized the impact of that silence: “I did not know then that the power of silence would be a force like none other in our lives — and that the words would not leave me for another seven years.”
For all who have grown up in rural North Dakota, Melanie’s memoir will bring smiles and resurrect fond memories. Others should brew a cup of tea, find a comfortable chair, and enjoy reading about an expatriate coming home —and coming to terms with the silence of the prairie.
(Murray G. Sagsveen is a Bismarck attorney who is a friend and former colleague of the author. He now focuses on nonprofit and leadership issues.)