Book review: Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh
Journalist Sarah Smarsh is a fifth generation Kansan who grew up with her family life centered around a wheat farm in the countryside, with Wichita being the closest big city. In her memoir, she chronicles generations of her family, particularly the strong but troubled women in her lineage, and puts their struggles and choices into clear economic and cultural context.
Smarsh writes to explain where her family came from, why they’ve remained at the brink of poverty despite working hard and constantly, and how she’s structured her life drastically differently, thus breaking cycles of violence, pregnancies, and lack of higher education and opportunities. In her “Corn Belt” world, farming and work as “laborers” are the options for men and it seems like personal luck goes a long way in determining how well a man can fare, while women vacillate between low-level administrative work or the frustrations of housewifery, unable to advance their station due to too many pregnancies, poor education, and endless financial woes.
It’s painful to read at times, but it shows strength, especially in the women of her family. It also feels frustrating in some of the choices the women make, but mostly Smarsh shows us why they didn’t feel they could have it any other way. Sometimes it’s being against a wall, elsewhere merely “we did as we had learned”: other models didn’t exist. It all serves to explain why she chose another hard path, of getting educated and getting out, “to swear that I would never suffer the way the women before me had – not at the hands of a man and not at the hands of an economy.”
Some of the women, particularly one of her grandmothers, are depicted in their own inspiring triumphs. Her grandmother was clearly a huge influence on her, as she traces her story from many young, broken marriages and children to forging her own career path, autonomy and a stable, loving relationship. These grandparents seemed to help give Smarsh the foundation she needed to change the destiny that had been written for her. Her father is well-meaning but suffered a terrible injury on the job, and her mother is creatively and intellectually frustrated and emotionally distant.
The biggest thing this book accomplishes is busting the myth that hard work automatically equals success; that if you just work enough for it, the fabled American Dream is within reach. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.
…my family clung to the economic promise that reward would find those who worked hard. Society told us that someone in a bad financial situation must be a bad person – lazy, maybe, or lacking good judgment.
Smarsh elucidates why benefits were viewed negatively by people who needed them, specifically her grandmother’s generation, when in the 1960s caseworkers humiliatingly searched the homes of single women on welfare looking for evidence that a man who could support her existed. “If they found whiskers in the bathroom sink, the mother lost assistance for being deemed a scammer of the system – surely the man was ‘head of the household’ and hiding income support from the government, the thinking went.” This was so revealing, in addition to that belief that work was the antidote to laziness and poverty.
The bulk of the memoir covers her upbringing, with forays into the stories of the family who shaped her. Smarsh writes that “being born female and poor were the marks against my claim on respect, in the world’s eyes, and I must have sensed it.” The end result is that with her academic work, she was able to study her way out of the types of jobs her family had been stuck doing, but even then she was labeled a “white trash scholar”, referring to the economic-based scholarship she’d earned.
It’s easy to see how the greater perception – she includes the throwaway label of “flyover country” and parlance like “redneck” and “trash” casually used to describe her whole world. The biggest takeaway is that those beyond the Corn Belt don’t understand the economics or conditions of this world. I’m first to admit that so much of this was eye opening for me, which is exactly why it’s important:
For someone who never worked a farm, for whom the bread and meat in deli sandwiches seemed to magically materialize without agricultural labor, the center of the country was a place flown over but not touched.
“I haven’t heard of anything like that since The Grapes of Wrath,” people with different backgrounds would say to me in all seriousness when I described life on the farm. They thought we didn’t exist anymore, when in fact we just existed in places they never went.
I wondered how the issue of race and inherent privilege would be addressed, and I thought Smarsh handled it gracefully. She shows life as her family lived it, without making a case that they had it worse – rather these were just their circumstances. She acknowledges that although they faced derision from white people better off than themselves for their perceived laziness or incompetence, they never had to contend with the specific dangers anyone non-white faces in America:
Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth, Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot? Working in a field is one thing; being told by a corporation that a pesticide full of carcinogens is safe to handle is another. Hammering on a roof is one thing; not being able to afford a doctor when you fall off it is another. Waiting tables is one thing; working for an employer whose sexual harassment you can’t afford to fight and risk a night’s worth of tips is another. For black and brown bodies, a particular danger exists regardless of how much money is in a bank account. We were white bodies in peril specifically because we were laborers.
There’s one aspect that I disliked and I wish I didn’t even have to mention it, because I think it’s otherwise an honest, revealing, and beautifully written book. But it’s structured as Smarsh writing this story to her unborn daughter, who she’s chosen not to have so to break the cycle of poverty/lack of opportunity that the women preceding her struggled with.
What she’s chosen, and her conviction in doing so, is so admirable to me. Her story of responsibility and making the right choices not only for herself but for another life underscores how brave and commendable that decision was. But every time a line pops up (that’s how it’s done – a line every so often, so it’s possible and preferable to forget this is part of the book) addressed to her daughter and what her life would’ve been, or how she got through something by talking to this perceived “presence” of the unborn child, I cringed. I would’ve preferred this element incorporated as another part of the story instead of to an unborn presence but it is what it is.
Smarsh’s storytelling is rich and immersive, her points well made, fleshed out and considered. The book isn’t chronological which makes for some confusion here and there, particularly in the wide web of extended family. Even so, it’s effective by the end: I understood much more about the economic climate that’s contributed to generations of bad decision-making, or what seems so from an outside perspective.
Like Hillbilly Elegy, it’s anecdotal in that what worked for Smarsh may not be an option for everyone – she had the drive, ambition and ability to go the higher education route, and even with financial difficulties and red tape that stymie many college students, she managed. It’s not a cure-all for what’s ailing the working classes, but any story that gives hope through having lived it and survived while showing possibility for change is worthwhile.
This is what we need: clear, sensitive explorations of personal experiences outside what we think we know. This is how to understand that there’s no “real America” and any nostalgia we may harbor for simpler times is more often than not dangerously misplaced.
A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
by Sarah Smarsh
published September 18, 2018 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.