Things are never as difficult as they appear; they are always far more difficult.” A friend of mine once heard this bit of advice from his professor. And although the professor was speaking of theological study, the saying surely applies with equal force to doing an analysis of America, particularly in the era of Donald Trump and COVID-19.
In her new book, American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, journalist Marie Mutsuki Mockett reckons with that complexity with more care and maturity than nearly any other writer operating in what has become a crowded and tedious space: the Trump-country travelogue.
Ever since polls began showing Trump atop the Republican primary field, journalists and media outlets have been producing pieces meant to explain his popularity among some Americans to those who find it inexplicable. At its worst, these pieces are derivative, condescending, and trite, leaving us with little more than the fact that Trump supporters support Trump, as journalist Ashley Feinberg has shown.
That being said, understanding America in 2020 remains difficult, as many of the nation’s journalists struggle to capture that complexity in their work. There are differences of geography—city versus country versus suburb versus exurb. There are racial differences. There are religious differences. There are socioeconomic differences.
And as Mockett demonstrates in her book, any explanation of contemporary America that focuses exclusively on one of those factors is bound to be reductionistic. The people Mockett meets, like the overwhelming majority of people we meet in our day-to-day lives, are complicated, surprising, and interesting, if only we will take the time to see them.
A Curious Travelogue
To demonstrate this, Mockett joined a crew of “custom harvesters.” Custom harvesters are teams of people that travel across the American heartland harvesting crops for farmers who, for whatever reason, are unable to do this themselves. Mockett knew these particular harvesters because they had worked on her own family’s farm in western Nebraska for decades. The owner, Eric Wolgemuth, had become a family friend over the years, someone trusted and respected by everyone in Mockett’s family, even though they knew practically nothing about him. His work spoke for itself.
Wolgemuth comes from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the descendant of Anabaptists, the theological heirs of the 16th-century Radical Reformation. (The book, regrettably, claims that the movement began in the 15th century, which is incorrect.) Traditionally Mennonite, they have become more conventionally evangelical in recent years. In particular, Mockett spends the most time with Eric and his son Juston, an “exvangelical” and former aspiring pastor who introduces Mockett to the books of Rob Bell and Mike McHargue, among others. Juston and Mockett form a quick friendship due to a shared intellectual curiosity that drives them toward books and conversation.
American Harvest is a travelogue, but of a curious sort: The people with whom Mockett spends the most time are fellow travelers—harvesters making their way up from Texas into the Pacific Northwest. So the book is less a study of any one geographic place (or even region) and more a study of the harvesters themselves and the class they come from—a class commonly found throughout middle America. This makes the book interesting while also introducing one of the defining complexities of writing about contemporary America.
On the one hand, the unique circumstances of Mockett’s relationship with the harvesters positions her to get to know them well. Thanks in part, perhaps, to her background as a novelist, Mockett describes her companions beautifully, demonstrating an affection and sincerity that many coastal journalists have lacked when entering middle America. She manages this even when writing about people who were unkind to her, which is a writerly virtue often lacking in the world of memoirs, particularly memoirs about red states.
On the other hand, it is telling that in her attempt to study “the heartland,” Mockett studies an area roughly the size of Argentina mainly by traveling with a group of people who aren’t even from there and whose bond with the region boils down to commerce mixed with the broad, class-based affinity shared by agricultural workers.
To note this fact is not to fault Mockett. Of any group of rural Americans she might have studied for the book, the harvesters seem the obvious choice because of the knowledge and trust that already existed between her and Wolgemuth. And as already noted, Mockett’s handling of these people is both gentle and perceptive. Yet it’s questionable whether one can tell the story of America’s heartland by telling the stories of people who don’t even have a home there.
America’s small towns have been hollowed out in the postwar years, as Mockett discusses briefly when writing about her hometown of Kimball, Nebraska. As families disappear, along with the culture and memories they carry, it often seems as if the only thing justifying the ongoing existence of these communities is a relatively naked, extractive form of commerce that has become detached from broader, non-commercial concerns. And that creates difficulties for someone who wants to write about the culture of a place, the people of a place.
Certainly, many of the old skills and values of pre-industrial America still exist, and that is something to write about. Yet they are diminished and diminishing. Wolgemuth exemplifies basically all of these virtues—his thrift, his conscientiousness, his remarkable and seemingly infinite technical competence, his faith in God, and his fidelity to family all represent the best of the region. Indeed, his ordinary goodness is so compelling that I found myself wanting to learn more about him as I neared the book’s end.
Yet even so, his life is defined by mobility in a way that complicates the work of building and sustaining a way of life in a place across generations. This is not to denigrate the work of custom harvesters like him, who are only making the best they can out of a challenging situation—and who, after all, play a huge role in feeding our nation. But it is an important point to remember as we consider this book and its picture of middle America in the Trump era.
A Starting Point
Mockett has a complex relationship with Christianity. As the book opens, she is mostly baffled by Christians. The initial framing device for the book, in fact, is a question Mockett poses to her family: “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?”
Neither of these supposed hypocrisies is nearly as revealing as she supposes. Both questions present the respective groups in simplistic terms. The answer to the first, in particular, is not the least bit surprising to anyone familiar with Christian reflections on science and the natural world. But this is where Mockett begins as she tries to wrap her mind around Christianity, and many of our peers in contemporary American begin in the same place. And so it is worth observing how Mockett’s reflections on faith move toward greater maturity and intelligence. Three points are worth emphasizing.
First, faith makes a discernible difference in the life of the harvesters. It is not always a good difference, but sometimes it is—and when it is, Mockett finds that compelling. Eric, in particular, is something of the hero of the story. His honesty, lack of pretension, and generous spirit heighten Mockett’s interest in Christian faith.
Second, she meets Christians interested in the life of the mind. Though many will rightly lament that the exvangelical Juston is the chief Christian thinker in the story, his willingness to talk, reflect on his own beliefs, and ask questions of Mockett further convinces her of Christianity’s intellectual seriousness.
Third, the work of harvesting, the slow pace of life in the country, and the long drives between farms furnish Mockett with ample opportunity to marvel at the world. One possible reason we talk so much about inhabiting a “disenchanted” world is that most Americans lack both the desire to look at it carefully and the time required for such looking. Between Mockett’s natural inquisitiveness and her experience alongside the harvesters, she learns to see the world the way that Eric does: It can be violent, and it can wear you down, but it can also surprise you with unsought beauty.
There is a very real sense in which, by story’s end, Mockett clearly desires to see the world as Eric sees it. As she witnesses a double rainbow with him and a couple of others, including Juston, she says, “whoever is painting the colors is not going to let go easily. The right side disappears first, and the original left side remains. Then it is just the upper left corner, with the red most prominent. And then the red, too, slips away, and the day is bright and hot and yellow again.”
A profession of faith this is not—not remotely. Yet it does betray a newfound willingness to look at the world and see not a machine, but purpose and intent. As a starting point for a longer conversation about our common life in today’s America, across its many dividing lines, you could surely do a lot worse.
Jake Meador is the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (InterVarsity Press). He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and four children.