For years, whenever Melanie Hoffert met someone new, she’d find herself explaining North Dakota. She grew up on the edge of the prairie, a farmer’s daughter with a typical rural childhood, but after college she left the state and found herself the object of fascination. “Now tell me. What in the world is North Dakota like?” people asked. She knew they expected her to confirm their ideas about a bleak and flat state, but she remembered it as a place of uncommon beauty.
She wasn’t sure she knew anymore. So she decided to go back, if just for one more harvest.
“When you grow up on a farm the cycle of harvest is as imbedded in your life as any holiday, and, so, when I’m not at the farm during harvest it is as if I’m missing Christmas,” she said in an interview. Hoffert’s memoir, “Prairie Silence” (Beacon Press), is her attempt to reconnect with her home state, and explore the idea of going back there for good.
“I think I romanticize the notion of living in North Dakota — the quiet, the beauty of the land, the closeness of the people, reconnecting with my childhood home — and maybe I always will,” says Hoffert, who ultimately returned to her home in Minneapolis, where she works in digital marketing for Teach For America. “I’m staying here for now — though I don’t know what my longer-term plans might be. I know at some point I will need to live closer to the natural world since that is where I derive so much of my energy and inspiration.”
If it were just a matter of landscape, she might never have left. But Hoffert’s connection with home is complicated by the fact that she is gay. During her harvest season back home, she came out as a lesbian to several old friends (her family has long known), testing the limits of regional tolerance.
“I feel like I’ve created a self-imposed exile by not breaking free from the silence I’ve harbored my entire life. In preparation for the launch of my book I wrote to a dear childhood friend whose judgment I had feared for years based on what I gathered from her political beliefs. Her acceptance of me, though, was immediate and her love was abundant. But because of my fear, we had lost 20 years — literally — of the sort of authentic friendship we had as kids,” said Hoffert. “My experience of people back home has been like this, one of utter acceptance and, at least with my immediate family, unconditional love. And this is the point I eventually make in the book — that often our deepest fears and silences lie within us and are not imposed by others.
“And, yet, I’m not ignorant. I know there is a great deal of hate in this world; I know that I am not immune to people’s judgment; and there are still many people who have never acknowledged this aspect of my life. But, still, I have a lot of faith in the people of North Dakota. We know each other, and there is something to be said for that closeness.”
A wistful read
Hoffert’s old neighbors are about to get to know her even better. In “Prairie Silence” she talks about farming with her dad and with neighbors, sits down in small-town bars with old friends, and haunts her old stomps one more time. And she also writes with honesty about her first crushes, repressed church-camp experiences, and what it’s like to be an outsider at home. It’s a wistful read, full of generosity and love and true admiration for the people back home. But that doesn’t make sharing it easy.
“It feels incredibly raw and scary, to be honest. People around me — friends, other writers, colleagues — are thrilled for me, and I wish I could completely embrace the joy of the experience without the anxiety. I’m not worried about strangers reading the book — I hope they do. I just worry about people from back home, which is logically incoherent given the support I feel. But fear is not logical.”