I’m not sure I can adequately sum up the many wonderful parts of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh in a blog post. But I’ll do my best.
Firstly, Smarsh’s story of growing up poor and “country” in Kansas brings a realness and a deeply personal perspective to an examination of being poor and white in the U.S. Through a combination of scenes and vignettes, we are led through a story of one family’s struggle to get by in rural Kansas.
The Goodreads blurb explains the overall concept best, “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 narrative set-up is unique. Throughout the book, she speaks directly to “August,” her as yet un-conceived daughter. I thought I would hate that device. And it’s getting a lot of guff on Goodreads, but honestly, I think the way she uses it is kind of brilliant. It sounds airy-fairy, but by the end of the book you come to understand that she is sort of speaking to a version of herself or even to her Higher Self (as the New Agers say).
The idea that Smarsh would end up a pregnant teen is one that hangs over her as she grows up. She’s the daughter of a teen mom and so is her mom and so was her grandmother. This lineage leads us through a timeline of generational poverty, inherited by the daughters of each subsequent mother, right through to Sarah’s childhood in the 80s and 90s.
An examination of the system that keeps poor people poor is woven throughout. Herbert Hoover, Regan, Bush, and Clinton (the demonizer of the “welfare queen”) are all mentioned and their policies criticized. Sarah also examines the judgement placed on poor people just for being poor in the U.S. Being poor is often seen as a moral failure here and is likely to be blamed on an individual’s choices rather than acknowledged as the result of a systematic problem.
Here’s a quote:
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? When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.
So this book is much more than a memoir. It tells the story of one woman and one family, but it also provides cultural context for that story.
Finishing this book, I was emotional. I kept thinking, “What can we do? What can we do?” Unchecked capitalism is definitively not working. But what are the answers? How do we fix a broken system, one where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It’s modern, Western society’s whole set-up. But it only works for a few of us.
The problem is so big. And I’m not educated or smart enough, let alone powerful enough, to know how to solve any of it. I can only cast my vote in the way I think best and help where I can. I don’t know.