Growing up a boy in a mans world is hard enough. But growing up a gay boy in a rural masculine, coal and ranch country is a whole other way of growing up. From bullying to beatings and watching the correlation of tearing up the planet as a metaphor for tearing up someone’s self worth, author Taylor Brorby lays it all down in words with his new book BOYS AND OIL, a haunting journey of living life as a closeted gay man until you just can’t any longer.
Taylor Brorby is an essayist and poet. The coeditor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, his work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Orion, and North American Review, where he is a contributing editor.
In BOYS AND OIL, a bracingly honest coming-of-age memoir, Brorby brings new focus to a chronically ignored region of the country whose rich resources—its land and its people—are too often ravaged for America’s expedient purposes. In his hometown, Center, North Dakota, there are no stoplights, grocery stores, or motels, just a few bars and churches, with pews filled on Sundays by men who will return to the coal mine or the power plant on Monday and every day after. Here Brorby recounts his story, and that of the prairie, too, interweaving historic coal-country vignettes with scenes from his youth to forge a new path across a notoriously unforgiving landscape.
In visceral prose, Brorby recalls his upbringing in a trailer house in Center, and later in Bismarck; his adolescent infatuation with books; and how he felt intrinsically different from other boys in his home state, a state that ranks first in binge drinking. Childhood memories of picking chokecherries and fishing for bluegill with his beloved grandfather are soon replaced with the recollections of a closeted adolescent—of taunting and mocking, even beatings, from peers. Still, Brorby remained in North Dakota until he was outed to his family, and it became clear that to survive home, he had to leave first.
Drawing readers into the tumultuous relationships of his early adulthood, Brorby relays his decision to flee North Dakota—physically, but never spiritually—for Minnesota, and eventually to come out on his own terms. Now an environmentalist, Brorby casts the prairie as a place of vulnerability, “where humans and animals must be resilient to survive.” Using the terror he experienced as a youth as a metaphor for the destruction of his homeland, Brorby describes his awakening as an activist, his arrest in Iowa at the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the yearning for the lush green grass and brown buttes of his childhood, “for a way to return.”
Haunting and deeply affecting, BOYS AND OIL is as much a book about growing up gay in rural America as it is an extraordinary paean to the natural environment, and a plea to stop destroying the land we call home.
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