Travels in Exotic Nebraska: A Review of American Harvest


In the past several years, a literature has emerged seeking to understand “the divide.” These books have often looked like a liberal writer going out into the country to find the Republicans, Christians, and other quirky people in order to explain them to their fellow liberals in the big, coastal cities. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, Niel King’s American Ramble, and Ross Benes’s Rural Rebellion are, in their own way, examples, but a fair number of others could be listed. These books are generally admirable in their goals, which are to promote some kind of understanding of those parts of the country with which their readers are not familiar, and which they often view as dim, benighted, and backwards at best. At the same time, they often face limitations in the degree to which the authors can portray with sympathy, and not with condescension, the people they are writing about.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the American Heartland is one such book. Like King’s, it involves an American journey, following a crew of grain harvesters as they move north along the great plains. The author is a mixed race Japanese-American from San Francisco whose family has long held cropland in western Nebraska. She is, therefore, not totally unfamiliar with the great plains, and the book charts her journey up that stretch of country with the harvesting crew that works her land at the end of each season.

Mockett is genuine, it seems, in her effort to give these people, these white evangelicals, a fair shake. She goes to church, she does bible study, she rides along through mucky harvest work, and it’s clear that she has a great deal of respect for many of them. Eric, the boss of the crew, is shown as hard working, honest, and surprisingly gentle and open-minded. There is something in the traditional womanhood of Emily, who is working in a typically male crew, that is seen as worthy of respect.

Biblical debates happen often among the crew, with Mockett joining in to better understand, to question, or to offer counterpoints from the secular world. These are true to life–the kinds of conversations I’ve heard among evangelicals many times before. And the characters, too, remind me of people I’ve known and met as an Iowan.

A dynamic that emerges as the book goes on is the tension between Eric’s young son, Juston, and much of the rest of the crew over theology. Juston is a young man who attends a Christian university and who recommends Rob Bell books to the author. An evangelical reader can see where this is going. Rob Bell, for those not familiar, is a Christian speaker and former pastor, most famous for his book Love Wins, which rejects the idea of hell. Many evangelicals see him as picking and choosing, playing fast and loose with the teachings of Jesus, and espousing beliefs that fit comfortably in the broader culture.

Juston will be a familiar type of young evangelical to those who know that world. Focused more on the spirit than the letter of the law, more on the message of the Bible than its literal truth, resentful of the conservatism of the rest of the evangelical world. Mockett seems to come out on Juston’s side. At one point, she says that, in all her church going, she has never heard preaching on the love of neighbor (something that stretches credulity). Those who really get Jesus, according to Mockett, and who are not caught up in all the churchiness and the legalism of the faith, aren’t called Christians but “Jesus people.”

There is an irony here, since evangelicalism itself grew from the impulse to reject a hierarchical, authoritative Church, and to return to the basic teachings of Jesus and the Bible. You could find many a conservative evangelical who describes herself as a Jesus person, someone less interested in Church structures than in a relationship with their personal Lord and Savior. What many evangelicals fear is that this logic will be taken too far, that Christians will begin to think of Jesus as a metaphor, or just a nice guy, or a mere moral teacher, and that his teachings will increasingly be seen as optional, as long as we are living in “the spirit of Jesus.” Following the “true spirit of Jesus” may amount to drifting away from faith altogether, into a bland commitment to “niceness” and an acceptance of whatever moral positions are popular at the moment. This aspect of the debate does not fully come out in the book, but it will be, I think, a familiar dynamic to many Christians. I am not myself an evangelical, but I’ve lived with evangelicals and counted among them dear friends, and I think Mockett misses the underlying dynamics of these debates in this community.

One limitation in the way the book talks about Christians is that it uses the word chiefly to refer to evangelicals, and white evangelicals at that. But most of the world’s Christians are not evangelicals and not white, and little mention, if any, is made of the mainline denominations, Orthodoxy, or Catholicism. To think of Christianity as a white, rural, protestant religion is to miss, among others, the many Latino evangelicals in the Southwest, the many Black Christians in the South, and the diverse mix of ethnicities that is the Catholic Church.

One feels at the end of the book that ruralness, Christianity, and whiteness have been conflated. But these categories are complicated in a great variety of ways. Go to any meatpacking town in the rural Midwest and you will find Sudanese, Somalis, Loatians, and Ecuadorians (or some other mix) living side by side. Majority minority and American Indian counties are the fastest growing rural areas in the country. Christianity, as previously noted, is very much an urban, as well as rural religion. Whiteness, ruralness, and Christianity might overlap in places, but they are hardly coextensive.

The book ends with the author’s fascination with the book of Revelation. Why, she wonders, is the end of the world a city and not something more rural? Mockett’s evangelical interlocutors tell her it’s a metaphorical city, an interpretation which she seems to see as growing out of a resentment for urban people, for diversity, and for all associated with our own cities.

She concludes by talking to a Christian scholar who tells her, no, it’s definitely talking about a literal city (a view I have only heard espoused by fundamentalists). The folks she traveled with didn’t like things that were “city,” Mockett says, wondering aloud if it was really the city that was their problem or if it was people from other races. To this, the scholar responds “Oh, it’s race.” Revelation is a city, the book concludes, because “God loves people, and the people are in the city.”

I found this conclusion unworthy of the book itself. After all of the effort to find sympathy with country people, the author seems to conclude that, in the end, the city is really better, because that is where diversity is, and the country people are racist.

Earlier in the book, there is a scene in which Eric, the crew leader is enjoying himself at an American Indian gathering, and a moment where he secretly goes out of his way to buy food for a poor Latino family. Perhaps Eric is considered an exception, since he grew up on a Navajo mission, and his actions don’t represent those of rural people. But isn’t he, too, a devout Christian and a country person?

The book’s narrative is simply too reductive. Are there racial resentments in this country? Absolutely, and they live in the city just like they do in the country. But country people can’t be reduced to that. At its best, the book shows this more complex reality, but I wonder if traveling on a harvesting crew is really the best way to get to know rural America. Perhaps a journey that would have exposed the author to life within rural communities at length, rather than just passing through, would have been helpful. As an Iowan who has lived and worked in small towns, I’ve found that they, and the people in them, are more full of surprises than you would imagine.

The book is at its best when it embraces a more generous spirit. If one wishes to learn about traveling grain harvesters and to follow a literary description of the landscape, one will find it here. There is a good deal to provoke thought in the exchanges between Mockett and her hosts, and for this, the book is worth reading. But it should be taken for what it is, one person’s perspective of a few months with a harvesting crew, and not as a portrait of rural America as such.

Image Credit: George Inness, “The Lackawanna Valley” (1856) via Wikimedia


  1. Read the remarkably silly introduction to the most recent reissue of I’ll Take My Stand, in which the author attempts to make the case that the agrarians’ problems weren’t actually with consumerism, industrialization, etc. No, what it was really all about was blacks and uppity women.

    This “critique” is common. I remember back in early 2017 getting into an online debate over one of these “let’s explain MAGA” books, in which the other person made the claim that any attempts to understand rural/rust-belt Trump voters ended up being inadvertent defenses of racism, regardless of the authors’ conclusions. This was logical poppycock of course, but no amount of applied logic could make my opponent see things otherwise. Hence, it doesn’t surprise me that Mockett takes a similar tack, as it seems to be a common default position.


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