Review: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

heartlandIn Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, author Sarah Smarsh honestly and fearlessly tells her story of growing up in poverty during the 1980s and 90s on Kansas farmland.

Through her experience growing up as the child of a dissatisfied teenage mother—and being raised predominantly by her grandmother on a farm thirty miles west of Wichita—she gives us a unique, essential look into the lives of poor and working-class Americans living in the middle of our country.  (Scribner Publishing)

In telling her story, it felt as if she ploughed up memories from my own farming childhood in Kentucky; not that I have experienced all the same traumas. However, we do share feelings of being “less than,” embedded by societal dualism of poverty vs. wealth, as well as a sense of family dysfunction that no one seemed interested in calling out by name.

“Nothing was more painful to me than true things being denied,” Smarsh writes. “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.”  A book about class, identity, and the plight of rural farmers also became – for me – much-needed confirmation that my similar memories have value. A very personal, yet unexpected, response to her openhearted memoir.

From conversations with her imaginary daughter to strife-filled stories of her family’s generational struggle with poverty, Sarah Smarsh holds nothing back. She laments being constantly reminded as a child of all she didn’t have, “like running a hot marathon next to a cool reservoir from which you’re not allowed to drink,” while also celebrating her ultimate success as a professor and journalist – tempered by the process of trying to reconcile where she is with where she once was.

Heartland also gives frank insight into the lives of those waging daily battles against dysfunctional family cycles while simultaneously struggling to earn a living wage. As Smarsh’s story explains in heartbreaking detail, “It’s impossible to pay the citation for expired auto insurance” when you can’t even pay the initial insurance bill after “fifty hours a week holding metal frying baskets at KFC.” Then try explaining such a situation to a person who has never missed a payment on anything and never had to work a double shift to pay the insurance bill.

Bottom line:  The people who need to hear such stories are maintaining their distance from the people who are living them out. Heartland helps shorten that distance.