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I’m often mistaken for a vegetarian. 

I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s my tattoos. Or my hair color—a shock of blond bangs amid the red. Or my nose piercing. Or the fact that I practice yoga almost daily.

But I eat meat. I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota with a freezer full of beef, and it’s tough for me to lose that craving.

That freezer full of beef—along with what it’s like to live a life of contradictions—factors into Melissa Faliveno’s debut essay collection Tomboyland (released Aug. 4; available for pre-order).

Melissa Faliveno. Image from author’s website.

Faliveno, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, about 30 miles from Madison. The book beautifully captures Midwestern life: the excitement and fear spawned by summer storms; quiet fortitude; a connection to nature; and large extended family gatherings that always feature a “dish to pass.” (Side note: the Midwest is often like one small town. I found out while reading the book that Faliveno and I share a good friend).

But more than that, this is a book about the gray areas and the complexities that make up a person.

At the moment, Faliveno is in a long-term relationship with a man, though she spends quite a bit of time in the book exploring different labels and explaining why none of them quite fit her. She’s often mistaken for a man. She lives in a middle ground—not feeling 100 percent male, not feeling 100 percent female. 

That is only one of many contradictions she addresses in the book, such as her attitude toward guns, how she feels about eating meat, and her desire to remain childless.

As a lifelong Midwesterner, I’m happy to have Faliveno be my ambassador to the East Coast. I’ve often felt misunderstood, mislabeled, seen as a backwards hick by those on the coasts, living in “flyover country” as I do. Why would anyone choose to live in the Midwest? Here’s a book that helps to answer that question.

The book is proof that those who see themselves as the most “open-minded” can sometimes be the most close-minded. Faliveno writes about having to defend her extended family—for whom many hunting is a sacred fall ritual—to those in New York. After the 2016 election, she writes “…people on the coast began to talk about Midwesterners as if they were nothing more than uneducated, gun-toting rednecks. And I can’t help but to feel protective of my gun-toting midwestern family, and the scores of other Midwesterners I know who keep guns responsibly.”

This book couldn’t be released at a more perfect time. We live in divisive times, when you are one thing or another. We’re quick to label people and quick to come to disagreement. But stop for a minute and talk to the guy in rural Wisconsin who owns a gun. Stop for a minute and talk to the androgynous-looking person. Strip all of those labels away, and you will find a human—and likely, a human you’re going to have some connection with. 

Five stars!