Taylor Brorby's 'Boys & Oil' - growing up gay in the heartland

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday December 13, 2022
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author Taylor Brorby
author Taylor Brorby

"Flyover country. When you grow up knowing you're from a place no one visits, your dreams settle for staying put, for doing the act you've been trained to do: make your money by destroying the world. Though you don't see it that way, you've become a pawn in someone else's story, a story of That's the way it is, this is the way it has to be. The illogical violence wrought upon the prairie is propelled by powerful men destroying lives to line their own pocketbooks."

Thus begins Taylor Brorby's beautifully written new memoir, "Boys & Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land."

Taylor Brorby grew up in Center, North Dakota. The tiny town has a population of just 500 people, even today. Not so much as a traffic light was needed when he was growing up.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of outdoor activities to keep him busy. In vivid, cinematic descriptions, he recalls his active childhood and his love of hunting and flyfishing on the prairie.

Readers of "Boys & Oil" will relish his lyrical prose and brilliant descriptions of the land that to my knowledge have never been published to date. The book contains many astute observations about life on the grassy prairie, oceans of grasslands where early settlers sometime died if they lost their way with no landmarks to guide them, that may be completely new to most readers.

One such observation tells of the harshness of living on land that leaves all wildlife and humans completely vulnerable and exposed. Furthermore, he delves into the type of closed masculinity that develops in such extreme topography where the only acceptable expression of emotion is physical violence.

Beautiful depictions of nature, America the beautiful —even in the most remote places— allow the reader to behold this ancient land perhaps for the first time. Swamplands transformed by volcanic ash pressing into sedimentary rock, limestone, and shale reshaped by glaciers over millions of years, this priceless land is our inheritance.

Primarily, though, this book is not about the fossil-fuel industry or the destruction it wreaks upon the land, although the landscape informs his story in this "gin-infused world." Instead, this is a memoir about the pain of growing up gay in small town America.

From a young age, Brorby was taunted due to his interest (and enormous talent) in art and music, considered girlish pursuits.

Brorby's ticket out was education and the professional opportunities it opened up for him. He could now escape his "fossil-fuel heritage" and would not be confined to working in the coal industry. Truly, the chances are very slim he ever would have become an author had he not been gay. If not for his hometown's rejection of sexuality, he may never have been compelled to discover his own literary talent.

He also writes about Medora, the popular resort town and home of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in the heart of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. With folk singers and beautiful horseback riding trails, ironically, it also happens to be "the gayest town in the West."

There are occasional unexpected outbursts of violence in the memoir, and viciousness, even from family, such as from the aunt who cruelly outed him, destroying his relationship with his parents. In stark contrast, it was easy to come out to his beloved grandfathers, men from the greatest generation, a farmer and a coal miner who had forged their own way on the prairie.

Unconditionally, instinctually, these were men who knew how to discern what is important from what is irrelevant, and no matter what, they made it clear they would always love him.

'Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land' by Taylor Brorby, Liveright/Norton www.norton.com www.taylorbrorby.com $27.95

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