From May to October, traveling from Texas to Idaho, a team of custom harvesters follow the wheat belt as it ripens, at a rate of about 20 miles a day—a pace and route similar to pioneers settling the West.
In the panhandle of Nebraska, along the Colorado border, they stop at a farm owned by the family of Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland. Her family has owned this land for more than 100 years and, although they now outsource all the labor of planting, growing, and harvesting, they reconvene in Kimball, Nebraska each year for the wheat harvest.
A single question spawned American Harvest: “Why are our farmers and harvesters, who are conservative Christians, okay with GMOs, while people in the city, who believe in evolution, are obsessed with organic food?” At a glance, this question seems designed only to ensnare a contradiction. But this narrow question widens into a sprawling examination of American history, identity, and food as Mockett journeys through the Heartland for answers.
The land itself, and the harvesters’ path through it, summons history. They retread Texas cattle drives up to Nebraska where they turn West, and follow the Oregon trail to Idaho. Mockett takes advantage of these encounters to discuss white settlement, Native American displacement, and the history of farming techniques.
Mockett briefly tells the story of Making Medicine, a Cheyenne man whose name was later anglicized to David Pendleton Oakerhater. After Oakerhater surrendered to white colonizers, he was imprisoned without trial in Fort Marion where a zealous Lieutenant took it upon himself to, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Oakerhater, a model student, learned English, became a Christian, and was appointed first sergeant over the other prisoners.
Reading Oakerhater’s correspondence letters, Mockett recognizes a voice she knows well—the voice of someone “testing their own confidence in a new language and a new faith and a voice that hopes to please another person.” It is her mother’s voice at the doctor. It is her own voice after upsetting the harvesters. Despite the evidence and seemingly sincere letters, Mockett harbors doubt, or perhaps hope, that Oakerhater’s conversion was not authentic, but done to survive.
In addition to providing this historical context of white settlership and agriculture, Mockett also documents illuminating conversations she has with her harvesting team. These conversations prove meaningful, particularly because Mockett maps her thinking so well.
Upon first hearing her question, Eric, the lead harvester, thinks what she’s really asking about is “the divide.” For Eric, the divide is framed in terms of liberal and conservative, but, for others, the divide is city versus country or Christian farmers versus atheist knowledge workers. Although food is the central axis to Mockett’s question, this aspect is easily eclipsed by thornier topics like religion, politics, and white settlement. Still, Mockett frequently repeats her question, to readers and strangers alike, so as not to lose sight of her goal.
Mockett’s very presence, as a liberal, Bay-dwelling, half-Japanese woman, introduces a division within the harvesting team. Of the nine members, less than half speak to her openly. Of this half, there is Eric, his wife Emily who feeds the crew, their son Juston, and his friend Michael. Juston once aspired to be a pastor, but is now dubious of the Church as an institution and recently enrolled in a Christian college where he studies English. Mockett sees Juston as a “bridge between worlds” because of his faith and scholarly studies, but his fellow farmers tease Juston about his “college talk.” The cause of “tension” among the crew, Emily explains, is college.
The impulse to bridge political, geographic, and cultural divisions may remind readers of writing that proliferated after the 2016 election, as journalists raced to explain “the other half.” Overnight, we realized just how segregated Americans are—geographically and informationally—and suddenly liberal urbanites were anxious to get outside of their bubble. Who are these people? And why did they vote for Trump?
The day after the election, the New York Times published an article, “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” Among these were Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, probably the most well-known title of this booming genre. Though both of these books were authored before Trump’s election, each was advertised as diagnostic of his supporters’ worldview and read just as narrowly.
These two books managed to avoid the pitfalls of parachute journalism, a widespread criticism against this genre, wherein a writer drops in briefly to report on the social and economic grievances of middle America.
Vance was born in Kentucky coal country, raised in Rust Belt Ohio, and studied law at Yale before entering venture capital in the Bay Area. Like Juston, Vance embodies a bridge between worlds and acts as an ambassador. Vance’s memoir may be flawed in some aspects, but no one can say it isn’t authentic.
Hochschild, on the other hand, spends five years in Louisiana trying to understand why Tea Party supporters seemed to vote against their own self-interest. In attempting to resolve this seeming contradiction, Hochschild excavates what she calls a “deep story,” i.e. a story we tell about ourselves, shaping our self-image and what we value; a story that, above all, feels deeply true.
While it is tempting to cast American Harvest as yet another book about the “white working class,” it resists such categorization. Undoubtedly, Mockett was privy to much of the criticism waged against this genre and took active measures to avoid these trappings. Moreover, her unique food-focused question and efforts to historically contextualize her observations help keep American Harvest a safe distance from that quagmire of a discourse.
But what ultimately sets American Harvest apart is the fact that Mockett scrutinizes both sides of the divide, not just the “other half.” Her question implicates a contradictory attitude on the part of both city dwellers and country folk; Christians and atheists.
Everyone, according to Hochschild, has a deep story. Mockett knows this and understands that transparency on her part will advance her efforts as a cultural ambassador. To this end, Mockett carefully walks the reader through her thought processes and emotional responses, is up front about reporting challenges (only half the crew talks to her), and, in the first chapter, outlines her preconceptions of “flyover states.” Tucked between transcribed dialogue and in-scene action, these reflective asides never intrude upon the portrait of her subjects. Her forthrightness engenders trust among the harvesters and her readers as well.
In keeping with this transparency, it seems only fair to explain where I am coming from. I was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, a modest capitol city with liberal leanings. Growing up, my Grandma told me about her family’s farm in Orchard, Nebraska and it always astounded me that I was only two generations away from farm life. Because of this generational and geographical proximity, I have long harbored curiosity for my fellow Nebraskans. I left Nebraska for Chicago to attend university and later moved to New York where I live today. I am, at this point, more city than country.
While I might look like the harvesters (white, male), I share more in common with Mockett herself (urban, writer, non-religious, uncomfortable around machinery). An insider in some regards (I could easily visualize the landscapes that open every chapter), I am completely an outsider in relation to Christianity and its many denominations. These sections, and Mockett’s commentary, comprised some of the most rewarding passages. After reading the Bible for the first time, Mockett notes that it beings with a garden (Genesis) and ends with a city (Revelation).
In her family’s hometown of Kimball, Mockett experiences two wildly different churches—one is a “house church,” and the other is evangelical.
The house church is literally that. Held in the home of Caroline, a friend and neighbor of Mockett, everyone sits in a circle and shares something they’ve been thinking about: a line from the Bible, an anecdote from life. A recurring theme here, in alignment with Mockett’s conviction that Jesus’s core message is love, unbounded and abundant, is “the request for their hearts to be softened so Jesus can enter.” There is no leader (most the churches she visits are lead by men), the women do not wear make up, and the voices are not theatrical. These simple, unadorned qualities warm Mockett. The openness and honesty, on par with a recovery meeting, inspires everyone to try harder to improve themselves.
The Evangelical Free Church, Juston promises, “is the closest you’ll get to hellfire and brimstone.” It is the “most popular place in town,” “alive with the charge that comes when multiple generations gather,” and near capacity with over one hundred people in attendance. Pastor Jan begins with a self-deprecating quip, but soon launches into an examination of grief through the Book of Job. God tests Job’s faith by taking away his wealth, family, and health. His tone darkens, and he speak “forcefully” and with “alarming emphasis” to the point of shouting. Mockett’s son, terrified, crawls into her lap.
American Harvest also ends in a city. Back in San Francisco, where Mockett lives, she is more comfortable, but not entirely at ease. Once more, she is compelled to play the part of ambassador, defending people she met in the Heartland to her friends of color. She worries that, like Oakerhater, she too often aimed to please. “Have I,” she worries, “in trying so hard to build a bridge, simply erased myself?” I do not think so. I think Mockett’s understanding of self expanded and is more full than before. Though she did not feel comfortable sharing her fullest self with the harvesters, she does so with the reader, while putting on a masterclass of reporting with humility.
American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Format: 408 pp., hardcover; Size: 6” x 9”; Price: $28; Publisher: Graywolf Press; Other books by the author: Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, 2015; Picking Bones from Ash, 2009.