Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
Maturity Level: 4
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During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less. Her personal history affirms the corrosive impact intergenerational poverty can have on individuals, families, and communities, and she explores this idea as lived experience, metaphor, and level of consciousness.
Smarsh was born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen mothers on her maternal side. Through her experiences growing up as the daughter of a dissatisfied young mother and raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita, we are given a unique and essential look into the lives of poor and working class Americans living in the heartland. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, Heartland is an uncompromising look at class, identity, and the particular perils of having less in a country known for its excess.
There is so much I didn’t like about this book that I’m honestly not sure where to begin. So maybe it makes sense to start with what I did like?
Smarsh’s memoir about her rural upbringing sheds light on a class of Americans that many people have forgotten about, and are largely ignored in national discussions. There are white people out on the Great Plains (farmers, mostly) who have been poor since before the American Civil War. Smarsh asks the questions, why are they still poor, what causes this cycle, and why was she able to break through? It’s a narrative from a voice that I think needs to be told, especially in an era that elected Donald Trump.
However, Smarsh failed to successfully answer these questions.
Don’t get me wrong, she had ideas. I think. It was hard to understand what she was trying to say. Her memoir is not told linearly, instead jumping from her childhood, to her mother’s and father’s childhoods, to her grandmother’s early years seemingly at random. It was almost a stream-of-conscious memoir, which made following her thought progress incredibly difficult. Her points when initially made felt strong, but the longer she blundered through the chapter the less clear the point became.
Often she had no stories to back her points up. For example, life on a farm is dangerous for a child. One would expect to then read about a time she or someone she knew had a terrible accident or near-accident. But nope. She just moved right along. Sometimes the anecdote would be so vague that it would have been better to not even be there. Probably she didn’t have that family member’s permission to share, however why she didn’t just leave those stories out altogether I do not know.
The whole thing felt sort of vague, honestly. Smarsh “opens up” in that she’s happy to tell of events that leave herself and her family vulnerable, but she rarely delved into the emotions that she or her parents felt. She mentions depression a few times in passing, talks about how she felt unloved by her mother, but never lingers on these thoughts for more than a sentence or two. Between the lack of feelings and the disjunct narrative, I never felt that I got to know Smarsh as a person.
Even worse, she constantly contradicted herself. In one case she presented the thesis of her book, that she was wrong to believe in the “American Dream” that if one worked hard enough they could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in the middle of describing how she successfully worked her buns off to pull herself up by her own bootstraps.
I also found myself rolling my eyes at the way she viewed her childhood and herself. She credits her destitute upbringing for her innate desire to finish her homework and achieve in school, but I came from a completely different background and it was like looking in a mirror. So how could it be caused by class? She talks about how her parents are so unique in her culture for being the only ones who are sensitive and creative, which I found to be presumptuous and showed a profound lack of understanding of the very people she is writing about.
Worst of all, she made the utterly bizarre choice to write the entire memoir as a letter to her potential daughter. First of all, I found it extremely unlikely that her 13-year-old self had regular conversations with her potential unborn child. It made the writing come off as affected, and I then doubted the authenticity of the whole book. (She didn’t help her case by trying to convince me that students at the UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS didn’t know there were still farms. *eye roll*) Second of all, if she was telling the truth and she did, in fact, have such a strong bond to said non-existent baby, it was still a reeeaaaallllly weird choice to write the book that way.
Sorry for ranting. TLDR, this book (probably) does more harm than good when telling the story of America’s rural poor. I do not recommend, which is too bad because I wanted so badly to love this book.