"Brorby has written not only a truly great memoir, but also a frighteningly relevant one that speaks to the many battles we still have left to fight." —Jung Yun, New York Times Book Review
From a young, gay environmentalist, a searing coming-of-age memoir set against the arid landscape of rural North Dakota, where homosexuality “seems akin to a ticking bomb.”
“I am a child of the American West, a landscape so rich and wide that my culture trembles with terror before its power.” So begins Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil, a haunting, bracingly honest memoir about growing up gay amidst the harshness of rural North Dakota, “a place where there is no safety in a ravaged landscape of mining and fracking.”
In visceral prose, Brorby recounts his upbringing in the coalfields; his adolescent infatuation with books; and how he felt intrinsically different from other boys. Now an environmentalist, Brorby uses the destruction of large swathes of the West as a metaphor for the terror he experienced as a youth. From an assault outside a bar in an oil boom town to a furtive romance, and from his awakening as an activist to his arrest at the Dakota Access Pipeline, Boys and Oil provides a startling portrait of an America that persists despite well-intentioned legal protections.
Poet Brorby debuts with a lyrical meditation on what happens "when you don't fit in where you're planted." Growing up in 1990s Center, N.Dak. a speck of a small town where, he writes, "fields grow into mines" Brorby became intimate with the region's long history with coal and his family's reliance on it, for work and warmth. He also quickly learned that "the prairie could... burn boys who liked boys." While exquisitely conjuring his awe for the area ("During the golden hour' on the prairie, the North Dakota palette reveals the subtle differences between ocher and umber and sienna"), he conveys his complicated relationship to it as a young queer man hiding in a town where "it wasn't safe to be gay." As the engrossing narrative unwinds, Brorby recounts his subsequent exile: escaping to college in the mid aughts; being rejected by his parents after coming out (his mother's response: "But we don't know any gay people"); protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline as a budding environmentalist in grad school; and navigating relationships with men out west. In the process, he offers a beautiful and complex look at how one can grow in the most unlikely places. Even at its most elegiac, this brims with quiet hope.