Sunday, February 24, 2013 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
Having grown up shadowed by the trees and modified hills of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, I admit to enjoying an occasional North Dakota “flatlander” joke. (North Dakotan: “My dog ran away. Yeah, it took three days”). An intern from North Dakota worked at the paper in Hibbing when I was there. She would tense up any time she drove through the woods, fearful of the encroaching forest that might LEAP OUT at any time.
But in reading a new book, “Prairie Silence: A Memoir,” by Minneapolis author and North Dakota native Melanie Hoffert, I finally realized something. The generational struggles of adapting to our changing world are just as prominent, perhaps more so, in North Dakota as they are here on the Iron Range or in the small lakes towns throughout Minnesota. We have much in common, and Hoffert’s central theme, Prairie Silence, applies as much here as it does there.
Hoffert writes that “prairie silence is:
“...the way the people of the prairie mirror the land with their sturdy, hardworking, fruitful, and quiet dispositions. They are committed to each other ... uncomplaining ... humble and quiet, like white prairie grass in the wind. They swallow their problems, their fears, their shames, and their secrets -- figuring that nature will take care of everything, somehow or other. That is, after all, how it works with the crops. And once a silence has taken hold, whatever it is, it is hard to uproot.”
Hoffert weaves her explanation of Prairie Silence with three experiences: growing up gay on a rural North Dakota farm, reconciling her deep faith with this equally deep reality, and, perhaps most importantly, finding that she loved her family, life on the farm and her community so much, but never knew how she fit into the simple, holy machinery of what she saw around her.
These intertwined threads become a strong rope that makes Hoffert’s memoir an enjoyable and deeply thought-provoking read. While her stories would resonate with anyone who realizes they are gay, they extend into even more profound questions: How on earth will we save rural America as the old way of life collapses into the new economy and flight by young people to the cities?
Social norms might make it abnormally difficult for a gay man or woman to live in a place like our own Minnesota Iron Range, but that is by no means the only reason why people leave. A whole way of life, once rooted firmly, has been torn asunder for gas stations, mini malls and box stores. Young people leave for action, opportunity and culture.
Reading Hoffert describe her hometown, where old buildings seem to disappear every time she comes home, reminded me of the toothless smile seen in many Iron Range downtowns as old buildings come down. As a bartender explains to Hoffert in "Prairie Silence": “Today the highways are nice and the cars are fancy. So: Poof! Ghost town.”
When was the last time you heard someone here on the Range say lines like these? “We’re running down to the Cities for the weekend.” “What’s the best place to get (name of food) in Duluth?” “I can’t do that, I’ve got tickets for (name of band) at the Xcel that weekend.” As a 30-something on the Range, these are the common phrases of life on Facebook or in idle hallway chat.
Here on the Range, as in Hoffart’s hometown, we abandon the aesthetic and cultural souls of our towns for a quick drive in a car that might well have a DVD player for the kids to watch. As Hoffart writes at one point about her experiences: “There are bodies, people, but the center of town is empty -- as hollow and sad as a gutted fish ... Am I partially responsible for this?”
Hoffart’s journey through her own identity, faith and experiences returning to the farm to work a harvest, is a worthy, meaningful ride. Her observations and conclusions ring like the old church bell she finds at an abandoned church near her home, not just for North Dakota, but for anywhere the land and the quiet determination of people created a new generation with a sense of place, but no place to go.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. The next episode will broadcast Saturday, March 9 from Bagley High School. Find out more at KAXE.org.