There were moments, as I was reading Sarah Smarsh’s debut nonfiction book “Heartland,” that tears suddenly filled my eyes, preventing me from reading the words on the pages I held in my hands. I felt I was there; I felt everything. Subtitled “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” this book beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.
Published in 2018, the story itself is excellent, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and compelling read. It is part sociology, part poetry and wholly engrossing. Beyond the story (seven chapters), I also very much appreciated the Acknowledgments at the end.
Why the Acknowledgments? Because “Heartland” is memoir, a true story. Much of what makes it so compelling is the characters—real people from Smarsh’s life, many of them still living. Their experiences (often colorful, sometimes painful to read about) give life to this creative nonfiction narrative of living and working in the 20th- and 21st-century Midwest. Smarsh recognizes this and thanks her family in language as beautiful and important as that of the rest of the book: “With deepest reverence, thank you to my family for surviving, with humor and dignity, the difficulties that allowed this book to exist. When I asked for their blessing to tell our shared past, they bravely answered yes…Because it might help someone else, and because it is true” (page 290).
…[“Heartland”] beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.
When I write creative nonfiction, similar questions weigh on me. Why do I want to share this (true) story? For me to put something of my personal world in a public space, for me to ask for loved ones’ blessing to share, some meaning to it all has to exist beyond, “This is a good story.”
There is meaning in the stories that Smarsh shares of her family. The underlying meaning is that entrenched economic inequality can keep the American dream out of grasp for a portion of Americans (in this case, her family’s generations of wheat farmers and teen mothers). Meanwhile, “the American dream” is so entrenched in our national mythology that those who fall short of achieving it may hold themselves as individuals completely responsible, rather than considering the systemic barriers to rags-to-riches realizations.
In the first chapter, Smarsh vividly yet pointedly describes, “That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure” (page 29). She goes on to write, “You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”
The whole truth that Smarsh goes on to explore includes issues such as access (and/or lack of access) to education, jobs and health care; teen pregnancy; and domestic violence.
Smarsh’s depictions of her female family members’ experiences with domestic violence were particularly disheartening to read, I found. Throughout “Heartland,” Smarsh notes that we may “live in different Americas and thus have different understandings” (page 39). Later in the book, she considers these differences as they relate to class and domestic violence. “In theory, women were being liberated during [the 1960s and ’70s], but the poorest of them had the least agency for independence in real life,” Smarsh writes, adding “Domestic violence occurs at all socioeconomic levels, of course, but the woman who can’t afford to leave will have more chances to be killed” (pages 217-218). Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.
Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.
A subtle yet omnipresent theme that Smarsh threads throughout “Heartland” is motherhood—her motherhood, although she does not (currently) have children. Growing up, Smarsh is pained to know that any child she has, as a poor young woman, would almost certainly grow up poor too, the odds stacked against him or her. As an adult, she achieves professional success (a tenure-track university professor job) and personal success (“a big house…with vaulted cedar ceilings,” page 283). One night, she realizes with both joy and sorrow that from this moment on, any child she has, if she does, would not be that poor child from her lifelong visions. “A cycle had been broken,” Smarsh writes, “and the place it tore was between me and you” (page 285).
Smarsh remembers that she “cried so hard” (page 285). But why? Why cry when you have achieved what you set out to do, when others might even say you embody the American dream? The reason why is because it’s hard to say goodbye.
It’s hard to say goodbye, always. To anything…even for a good thing, or a better thing.
Another recurring theme is women, and their strength, especially during difficult times. Smarsh’s observation on page 209 struck me: “In some ways, where I grew up there was less of a line drawn between men and women than I’ve found in more privileged places. The women who raised me cooked in cafeterias, drove tractors…moved boxes in the stock rooms of discount stores…The men I grew up around didn’t scoff at a woman’s capability.” The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.
“For the women I knew,” Smarsh adds on page 212, “work wasn’t a liberation from the home or a revelation of self. It was a way of life—familiar, essential, and unsung for generations.” Powerful, humbling, honest.
The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.
Smarsh reveals that the story of the American dream is a complicated one, a not-so-cut-and-dried narrative. For example, she notes in Chapter 1, “Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience…Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work. Its relationship to the economy—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in” (page 43).
Despite the complications, Smarsh’s story strikes a chord of hope at the end, for an “honest economic system” (page 288) sometime in the future.
“It’s complicated” may well describe much of the story, and the history, of Smarsh’s “Heartland.” Smarsh herself shares, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kids of people. I knew it wasn’t right, because both sides existed in me—where I was from and what I hoped to do in life, the place that best sustained me and the places I needed to go for the things I meant to do” (page 125), poignantly concluding with, “Straddling that supposed line as I did, I knew it was about a difference of experience, not of humanity.”
A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective. And what if the people in charge—and every one of us, really—could give that perspective a try sometimes?
A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective.
Why did I read “Heartland,” and why might you? I love nonfiction, and memoir. “Heartland” is both those things. I appreciate voice, especially a writer’s voice that is fresh, honest and evocative without veering into sentimentality. Smarsh’s voice is all those things—Hemingway-esque, at times, as in “A Moveable Feast.” I minored in urban studies in college (not that minors really matter), and have always been interested in the related topics of sociology and economics. “Heartland” is a first-person study of sociology and economics, against the backdrop of a Kansas countryside.
If you love nonfiction or memoir…an authentic voice…and/or sociology and economics, then you almost certainly will love “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh.
Photo credit: Simon & Schuster
Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.