SPALDING, NE - SEPTEMBER 30: Bob Bernt and his daughter Becky pick pumpkins on the family's farm on September 30, 2013 in Spalding, Nebraska. Bernt and his wife Kristine and 7 of their 12 children live on a 700 acre farm that was homesteaded by Bernt's great grandfather, where they raise organic grass-fed beef and dairy cattle, hogs, goats and raise organic crops. The Bernt family has not had health insurance for 20 years, a decision made after a bad experience with their insurance company following the birth of their daughter Rosie who was born with cerebral palsy. The Bernts do not plan to purchase insurance following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, opting instead to pay the penalty. Bernt, who swears by the health benefits of organic crops and grass-fed meat and dairy, thinks the Affordable Care Act sends the wrong message. "If we can get this country eating healthy we will reduce the healthcare costs in it", said Bernt. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Pumpkin harvest time at the Bernt family's farm in Nebraska © Getty

There has been no shortage of words written about the great divide in American culture: between reds and blues, the coasts and the heartland, those who feed our bellies and those who pretend to feed our brains. But there is a huge shortfall of empathy and open-mindedness.

Most commentators parachute into “flyover country” between the coasts certain that they are right and the heartland is wrong. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, the half-Japanese, half-American author of American Harvest, does not think she is right just because she’s from California. She has a foot in both camps, and it’s clearly a tough straddle. Mutsuki Mockett is a globetrotting, college-educated city dweller, but she also owns a farm in Nebraska. Which is not to say she feels comfortable there. It’s just as hard for her as for any outsider to visit middle America without treating it like a zoo: a place where superior knowledge workers can look benevolently down on inferior tillers of the soil, who also just happen to keep the rest of us alive.

At least she really tries. Every page of this (slightly too long) book is suffused with the struggle to comprehend, without condescending. Mutsuki Mockett tries to achieve the near impossible: to spend months travelling through middle America with an itinerant wheat harvesting crew, debating with them about God, race, history and genetically modified food, without alienating them or betraying her soul in the process. She only partly succeeds.

She sets out to answer one specific question, and some that will take a lifetime to settle. Why do all her atheist friends in the city shop only for organic non-GMO food, while most religious farmers in the Midwest have no problem tinkering with God’s creation by genetically modifying anything that boosts harvests? Isn’t that inconsistent with the deepest beliefs of both sides? And more broadly, what exactly do Midwestern farmers — many of whom voted Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 — really believe about God, life, and American culture? And how can we be so sure that they are wrong?

This is a travel book, and like all the best travel books, it is about an interior journey that just happens to take place in particularly evocative scenery. As Mutsuki Mockett writes in the prologue, “this is the story of the land and the people who own it and how they learn over and over again who owns what and how best to coax things out of the land . . . and how they try to take what they believe and plant it in the land”.

But it’s also a story of how Mutsuki Mockett, mixed race American, fits into white America (or doesn’t); how she makes her peace with God (or doesn’t); and how she can possibly resume the life she led before this extraordinary journey, when she escapes back to the coast afterward.

This story, in other hands, might well have bored me by the end of the prologue. But this author has the kind of deft touch with the English language that would make me read a book by her, no matter what it was about. She also has a sense of humour. When asked, during the trip, why she had made it, she replies that “I want to portray this part of the country as human . . . it must be human since humans are living here”.

She muses that she expected Juston, the God-fearing, yet also God-doubting, college student who was her closest ally on the trip, to be “like a terrarium” where she could “watch God waddle around inside of him”. Instead she found that she had to “go into the terrarium and be asked to waddle around too”. As someone who makes her living peering into the terrarium of the US Midwest for the FT’s global readership, I find myself falling into the glass jar too.

At the end of the trip, Mutsuki Mockett bemoans the fact that she wants her “old self to reappear” — but it won’t. The Midwest has changed her. That, perhaps, is her greatest talent: the willingness to examine, even abandon, her own biases before she casts stones. That’s a lesson in empathy that we can all learn from, in the time of coronavirus, in the time of presidential elections — and beyond.

American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Graywolf, RRP$28, 408 pages

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent

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