Heartland (Smarsh)

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Sarah Smarsh, 2018
Scribner
304 pp.
ISBN-13:
9781501133091 


Summary
Longlisted, 2018 National Book Award-Nonfiction

An eye-opening memoir of working-class poverty in the American Midwest.

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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1980-81 (?)
Where—Kansas, USA
Education—2 B.As., University of Kansas; M.F.A., Columbia University
Awards—Joan Shorenstein Fellowship, Harvard University
Currently—lives in Kansas


Sarah Smarsh is an educator, journalist and author, and a fifth generation Kansan. Her family and growing-up years are the subject of her 2018 book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, a book that takes a hard look at the devastation poverty wreaks on rural mid-westerners. 

Smarsh became a published author at nine years of age when her school teacher, Mr. Cheatham, sent in a story about her family to a children's magazine. It was published as a two-page spread, complete with illustrations.

Smarsh went on to get undergraduate degrees in English and Journalism from Kansas University and then an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She has taught nonfiction writing at the university level: Columbia University, Ottawa University, Lawrence Center for the Arts, and as an Associate Professor at Wabash University.

Heartland is her fourth book; she has also written two histories of Kansas and a collection of essays.

As a journalist, Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian (UK), VQR, NewYorker.com, Harpers.org, Texas Observer, and others. She is currently a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

She lives in Kansas. (Adapted from various online sources.)



Book Reviews
Smarsh is an invaluable guide to flyover country, worth 20 abstract-noun-espousing op-ed columnists.… A deeply humane memoir with crackles of clarifying insight, Heartland is one of a growing number of important works—including Matthew Desmond's Evicted and Amy Goldstein's Janesville—that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America's postindustrial decline. Or, perhaps, simply: class.
Francesca Mari - New York Times Book Review


In her sharply-observed, big-hearted memoir, Heartland, Smarsh chronicles the human toll of inequality, her own childhood a case study …what this book offers is a tour through the messy and changed reality of the American dream, and a love letter to the unruly but still beautiful place she called home.
Boston Globe


A poignant look at growing up in a town 30 miles from the nearest city; learning the value and satisfaction of hard, blue-collar work, and then learning that the rest of the country see that work as something to be pitied; watching her young mother's frustration with living at the "dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty" and understanding that such a fate might be hers, too. This idea is the thread that Smarsh so gracefully weaves throughout the narrative; she addresses the hypothetical child she might or might not eventually have and in doing so addresses all that the next generation Middle Americans living in poverty will face.
Buzzfeed


The difficulty of transcending poverty is the message behind this personal history of growing up in the dusty farmlands of Kansas, where "nothing was more painful …than true things being denied." …The takeaway? The working poor don't need our pity; they need to be heard above the din of cliché and without so-called expert interpretation. Smarsh's family are expert enough to correct any misunderstandings about their lives.
Oprah.com


Startlingly vivid.… [A]n absorbing, important work in a country that needs to know more about itself.
Christian Science Monitor


Smarsh’s family history, tracing generations of teen mothers and Kansas farmer-laborers, forsakes detailed analysis of Trumpland poverty in favor of a first-person perspective colored by a sophisticated (if general) understanding of structural inequality. But most importantly, her project is shot through with compassion and pride for the screwed-over working class, even while narrating her emergence from it, diving into college instead of motherhood.
Vulture


Sarah Smarsh looks at class divides in the United States while sharing her own story of growing up in poverty before ultimately becoming a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her memoir doesn’t just focus on her own story; it also examines how multiple generations of her family were affected by economic policies and systems.
Bustle


If you’re working towards a deeper understanding of our ruptured country, then Sarah Smarsh’s memoir and examination of poverty in the American heartland is an essential read. Smarsh chronicles her childhood on the poverty line in Kansas in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the marginalization of people based on their income. When did earning less mean a person was worth less?
Refinery29


(Starred review) Candid and courageous memoir of growing up in a family of working-class farmers…. Smarsh’s raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that "has failed its children.
Publishers Weekly


[A] countervailing voice to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, which blamed individual choices …for any one person ending up in poverty.… While Smarsh ends on a hopeful note, she offers a searing indictment of how the poor are viewed and treated in this country.
Library Journal


(Starred review) [T]he author emphasizes how those with solid financial situations often lack understanding about families such as hers.… A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. At the beginning of the memoir, Smarsh writes that, as a child, "I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world." What did this other voice tell her? What did the people in her house and on the news say about her?

2. Smarsh is the product of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s side. She writes that she was like a penny in a purse, "not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production." How did this legacy of teenage pregnancy affect her family’s social and economic mobility?

3. Smarsh and her brother were each born just weeks before Reagan won an election, and his economic policies had a tremendous impact on her childhood. Can you describe what that impact looked like?

4. Smarsh describes an incident in which she, as a toddler, pulled a chest of drawers onto herself, forcing her barely postpartum mother to injure herself lifting it up. Smarsh’s father was at work. How does this accident demonstrate the dangers of rural poverty and the fault lines in Jeannie and Nick’s relationship? Are the two related?

5. There were many, many car wrecks in the author’s life and in the lives of members of her family. Why do you think that is?

6. Teresa, Smarsh’s paternal grandmother, had untreated "woman problems" in her youth, according to Nick. What kinds of problems might he have been referring to? How was life in rural Kansas different for women than it was for their farmer husbands?

7. Smarsh writes, "When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kinds of people." Do you think that’s true? How does Smarsh straddle that line?

8. Betty often said that homeless people should "get a job," even though she and her family struggled economically—and even though she often gave money to those same people. How do you think her values were affected by the class system?

9. Do you believe, as Smarsh writes, that "in America …the house is the ultimate status symbol, and ownership is a source of economic pride"? What do you think the family’s transience meant to Nick, Jeannie, Smarsh, and her brother?

10. How did Bob’s newspaper job and middle-class stability affect the family’s economic situation?

11. Many of the women in Smarsh’s family endured physical violence at the hands of their boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. In what ways does gendered violence inhibit economic stability?

12. Smarsh writes that the women in her family had an "old wisdom" that had more to do with intuition than knowledge or education. Where do you see this in action in the lives of female characters?

13. Consider the specific reality of Smarsh’s life as a high-achieving high school student. What pushed her to excel?

14. What social realities did Smarsh meet in college? How was her life different from those of her fellow students, and how was it similar?

15. Smarsh argues that "this country has failed its children." Do you agree? How does her story demonstrate that, or fail to?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2020