Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

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 lo...

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Title:Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
Author:Sarah Smarsh
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Edition Language:English

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth Reviews

  • Paul

    Heartland belongs on the shelf next to books like Desmond’s Evicted, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed. Smarsh’s book provides a strong voice for and about breaking the destructive cycles of families, the economics of class, and the fact that birth should not be the reigning mark of future prospects. Smarsh is a talented writer who tells the story of her grandparents, parents, and extended family with clarity and warmth.

    For the full review:

    Heartland belongs on the shelf next to books like Desmond’s Evicted, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed. Smarsh’s book provides a strong voice for and about breaking the destructive cycles of families, the economics of class, and the fact that birth should not be the reigning mark of future prospects. Smarsh is a talented writer who tells the story of her grandparents, parents, and extended family with clarity and warmth.

    For the full review:

    For all my reviews:

  • Clif Hostetler

    This is a very well written memoir that not only recounts memories of growing up in Kansas (30 miles west of Wichita), but ponders the plight of working class poor with a deeply humane sensitivity that offers clarifying insight into social conditions of the heartland. In addition to the intimate details of family history the book’s narrative reviews the history of the Homestead Act, the progressive politics of early Kansas statehood, the farming crisis of the 80s, the Reaganomic swerve toward co

    This is a very well written memoir that not only recounts memories of growing up in Kansas (30 miles west of Wichita), but ponders the plight of working class poor with a deeply humane sensitivity that offers clarifying insight into social conditions of the heartland. In addition to the intimate details of family history the book’s narrative reviews the history of the Homestead Act, the progressive politics of early Kansas statehood, the farming crisis of the 80s, the Reaganomic swerve toward conservatism, and the home mortgage crisis of 2008.

    Much of the book’s narrative is directed to the author’s unborn child—who remains unborn and indeed may never be born. But it provides an introspective second person voice that the author has found motivated her to escape the pitfalls of teenage pregnancy. By asking the question, “What would I tell my daughter?” the author found a means of summoning the purest of intentions and aspirations. The second person voice also provides a tone of reflection and commentary that can almost pass for free verse poetry spoken to the reader.

    This memoir is an exploration of poor working class life up close and personal—a view from the inside by an author born into its implied destiny. But it is also written from the perspective of one who has managed to transcend its claim, and one who still retains sympathy for those who remain in poverty but also with a critical eye for the political and economic forces that make poverty so difficult to escape.

    Regarding the above, the author was born in 1980, the year Reagan was elected and the year politics turned toward economic policies that brought tax cuts for the wealthy and stagnation of real income for the working poor.

    Early in the book the author makes it clear that this book’s narrative was going to place the experiences of her life into the context of societal forces that were evolving concurrently.

    She addresses the persistent question I’ve asked many times, why do the poor vote against their own best interests? In the following the author is commenting on how her mother voted in the 1984 presidential election.

    In the last chapter of the book addressing the same subject during a more recent election the author said the following:

    The author knew that if she was going to break out of the cycle of poverty that she would need to do more than get straight A’s—she mustn’t get pregnant.

    I was initially drawn to this book because I grew up on a farm about thirty miles south of the author's childhood farm home. It was a happy accident for me that the book ended up being such a well written book.

  • Kathleen

    National Book Award for Nonfiction Longlist 2018. Smarsh has chosen to write about her own family’s multigenerational struggle in Kansas to get ahead by working any way that they could to make ends meet. She focuses particularly on her female relatives and how their decisions contributed to their poverty—her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all had their first child at 16-years-old. Having children at such a young age causes them to drop out of school, assume financial responsibilities

    National Book Award for Nonfiction Longlist 2018. Smarsh has chosen to write about her own family’s multigenerational struggle in Kansas to get ahead by working any way that they could to make ends meet. She focuses particularly on her female relatives and how their decisions contributed to their poverty—her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all had their first child at 16-years-old. Having children at such a young age causes them to drop out of school, assume financial responsibilities when they are still children themselves, and often enter into unwise marriages. Smarsh vows to not repeat this cycle and adopts a literary device of talking to her imaginary baby about how she will live her life differently from her female forbearers.

    The weight of never having enough money causes a lot of dislocation. Her Grandma Betty married seven times, and several of those husbands proved to be abusive. Her children learned to adjust to multiple moves. Smarsh’s mother, Jeannie, moved 48 times before starting high school. Smarsh’s own mother encouraged Smarsh to move in with Grandma Betty—and it did provide Smarsh with a constant residence which she benefited from.

    Poverty pounds people into submission on so many levels. Smarsh’s relatives were smokers and abused alcohol. Visits to the dentist or doctor were avoided as they cost too much. Smarsh’s father took a job transporting used cleaning solvent at one point and nearly died from chemical poisoning one week into the job. The farming crisis of the ‘80s and Reaganomics was hard on small family farms. Farmers lost their land to big agribusiness, and the social safety net that could have helped them suffered budget cuts or elimination altogether. Ironically, the poor of Kansas often voted against their own interests. They did not want to admit that they needed help; they preferred to believe that their labor would eventually be rewarded—not realizing that the societal system they lived under was stacked against them. Highly recommend.

  • Janilyn Kocher

    Heartland is a great read. I enjoyed Smarsh's family history immensely. However, I'm not buying her assertion that she grew up in poverty. I suppose my definition of poverty differs from hers. She always had a roof over her head and food to eat. Smarsh never had to live in a car or under a bridge as many people have. From my perspective, Smarsh was rich in love and perseverance that she learned from her family. Various family members spent a fortune on booze and smokes over the years, which beli

    Heartland is a great read. I enjoyed Smarsh's family history immensely. However, I'm not buying her assertion that she grew up in poverty. I suppose my definition of poverty differs from hers. She always had a roof over her head and food to eat. Smarsh never had to live in a car or under a bridge as many people have. From my perspective, Smarsh was rich in love and perseverance that she learned from her family. Various family members spent a fortune on booze and smokes over the years, which belies her poverty premise. The author also has a tendency to circumvent a person's accountability for his/her own actions. Instead she assigned blame like it was the government' fault, or the system, or a doctor; such as the case of her stepmother's situation. She avoids stating the obvious: each person is responsible for his/her own actions. I also don't agree with some of her reflections pertaining to history and politics. Overall, it's a very good memoir. Thanks to NetGalley for the advance read.

  • Rebecca

    If you were a fan of

    by J.D. Vance, then

    deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a m

    If you were a fan of

    by J.D. Vance, then

    deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:

    It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables.

    is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.

    This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.

    serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.

    The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.

    is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.

    “My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”

    Originally published on my blog,

    .

  • Michelle

    “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth” is a resounding story by Sarah Smarsh of her family life, heritage and farming culture on the Kansas prairie. With the passage of the Homestead Act (1862) over 270 million acres of land was available for settlement on the American plains. Settlers could receive up to 160 acres of land at no cost if they lived and cultivated their land for a period of five years. Smarsh, raised on family farmland, wrote that her

    “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in The Richest Country on Earth” is a resounding story by Sarah Smarsh of her family life, heritage and farming culture on the Kansas prairie. With the passage of the Homestead Act (1862) over 270 million acres of land was available for settlement on the American plains. Settlers could receive up to 160 acres of land at no cost if they lived and cultivated their land for a period of five years. Smarsh, raised on family farmland, wrote that her Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors arrived on the frontier in the 19th century to stake a land claim. This way of life was brutal on the vast prairie, the dust, the unforgiving climate, and lack of natural and financial resources.

    It was necessary for Sarah’s father to work away from the family homestead to support his family. Perhaps unprepared for the unrelenting harsh conditions of being a farm wife, Jeannie, Sarah’s mother had an underlying sense of anger and resentment, her depression and poor attitude may have had a lasting impact on her two children. The rates of domestic violence and divorce in their community near Wichita were high and incomes were low; Sarah’s grandmother consoled battered wives at her kitchen table. The funding from the popular televised “Farm Aid” raised by celebrity musicians in the 1980’s never reached the farmers in Sarah’s community; government programs and aid to assist struggling families were scarce.

    “For all my family’s emphasis on hard work, on some (level) we’d done away with the idea it always paid off. It was obvious that that the problems small family farms had was related more to commodities markets, big business connected to Wall Street and corporate interests.”

    When her father suffered from “toxic psychosis” after he was chemically poisoned from a work related accident, his healthy respect for rural women wasn’t enough save his marriage. Following the death of her grandfather, Smarsh’s parents divorced, and her mother left the farm for good. Her parents remarried to new spouses. Chris, her stepmother likely needed treatment for substance use disorder, though no affordable medical care was available. Smarsh studied hard, and did well in school, her goal was to attend college.

    A great storyteller, Smarsh is a keen observer of the hardship faced by people living in the heartland, and blends the truth of her gritty family story narrative with economic facts and conditions. Now a college professor, Smarsh shifted from blindly following a sociopolitical agenda that hurt the poor and vulnerable population first, the American Dream is currently unattainable for too many people regardless of economic status. Smarsh mourned for the daughter she never had, yet remains hopeful for an honest and fair system that supports economic justice, a dream and goal worth having and most certainly voting for. With thanks and appreciation to Simon and Schuster via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.

  • Richard Derus

    Real Rating: 2.5* of five

    Entirely because the book is written as though to the author's unborn—nay, unconceived—daughter. It's simply too cutesy-poopsie-woopsie a conceit for me. I love the style of the author's sentences, and I appreciate the depth and quality of her research. This topic...the immense and widening gap between Haves and Have Nots, the cultural forces behind the pernicious lie of class, the racism inherent in judging rural poor migrant workers as well as "native" white f

    Real Rating: 2.5* of five

    Entirely because the book is written as though to the author's unborn—nay, unconceived—daughter. It's simply too cutesy-poopsie-woopsie a conceit for me. I love the style of the author's sentences, and I appreciate the depth and quality of her research. This topic...the immense and widening gap between Haves and Have Nots, the cultural forces behind the pernicious lie of class, the racism inherent in judging rural poor migrant workers as well as "native" white folks as lesser beings...well, these are issues that won't go away if we ignore them. Time to wake up, folks. The world needs every single one of us to support positive change and progress to a better future for everyone, not just ourselves.

    If you can hack the

    -ness of it, this book is definitely one to absorb. The facts are there. The analysis is sound. I do not warn you off reading it. Caution is advised for the curmudgeonly and the relentlessly practical.

  • Elizabeth A.G.

    This is an inspiring memoir that not only reveals the multi-generational familial story of the author's life, but also delves into the greater societal issues of the working poor. Sara Smarsh confronts, in hindsight and from personal experience, the economic woes of farming and minimum wage work in the changing national narrative of business, profits, and class inequality in the Kansas heartland. Economic policy changes as in the Homestead Act, the more progressive Kansas politics, the 1980 farm

    This is an inspiring memoir that not only reveals the multi-generational familial story of the author's life, but also delves into the greater societal issues of the working poor. Sara Smarsh confronts, in hindsight and from personal experience, the economic woes of farming and minimum wage work in the changing national narrative of business, profits, and class inequality in the Kansas heartland. Economic policy changes as in the Homestead Act, the more progressive Kansas politics, the 1980 farming crisis, Reagan conservatism and the 2008 home mortgage crisis are presented by the author as detrimental to the working poor. Their work was underappreciated, undervalued, and viewed with disdain by the middle/upper class. But Sarah saw her people as hard-working, industrious, inventive, and innovative.

    She is also very aware of the pitfalls of generational poverty and presents to the reader the (in a way) self-created problems/flaws that kept people poor. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, subjugation of women, multi-generational teenage pregnancies that put an end to educational opportunity that could lead people from low wage jobs, divorce that caused many changes in residences that interfered with a child's education, and a blind eye and unwillingness to change their lives in the face of new technologies and ways of living are all mentioned in this book.

    Sarah was an intelligent, determined young girl who was mature beyond her years and who perceived the unachieved aspirations of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. She knew she had to avoid pregnancy and receive a good education or her future would continue the cycle. She was determined to get out and away from the life in which she grew up.

    "I was on a mission to make a life unlike the one I was handed, and things worked

    out as I intended."

    As an adult, she has hope that the working poor will see an honest economic system that will enable them to achieve the "American Dream." She has escaped the cycle of poverty thanks to her own perseverance, hard work and education. Yet, her memories, experiences, and cultural history will forever be with her.

    I gave the book 3 stars primarily because of the use in the narrative of telling her story by talking to the unborn child she may or may not have. While I can see that the unborn child was a motivator to Sarah to escape, it was a bit overdone with repeated mention of "What would I tell my daughter?" There was a connection in the end when she finally says "goodbye" to this imagined child who would no longer be the same child if she were now to become a mother - a different future would be the reality for any new baby as is Sarah's future. Also, there was quite a bit of repetitive thoughts about political policy. The descriptions of the Kansas countryside were quite poetic, but I found it difficult at times to keep track of her family members throughout the story and there were some time shifts in the story-telling that added to some confusion.

    also felt to me to be a less personal book and I couldn't really warm up to the author as some aspects of her life seemed to be glossed over, her teen high school days in particular. The memoirs

    ,

    , and

    were more personnally poignant even though Sarah Smarsh's childhood was also of hardship and survival.

  • Elizabeth

    tl;dr: I was really excited about Heartland but a gimmick makes it fall flat.

    I was giddy when I heard about Heartland--finally, a book had come along with the power of Nickled and Dimed!

    Sadly, despite the glowing blurb from Barbara Ehrenreich, Heartland is not that powerful. Even for a memoir, it lacks impact

    There is one thing Dr Smarsh does well in Heartland, and that's provide a nuanced look into the women of her immediate family. She's clear on their weaknesses and also very clearly proud of

    tl;dr: I was really excited about Heartland but a gimmick makes it fall flat.

    I was giddy when I heard about Heartland--finally, a book had come along with the power of Nickled and Dimed!

    Sadly, despite the glowing blurb from Barbara Ehrenreich, Heartland is not that powerful. Even for a memoir, it lacks impact

    There is one thing Dr Smarsh does well in Heartland, and that's provide a nuanced look into the women of her immediate family. She's clear on their weaknesses and also very clearly proud of their strengths.*

    Problems in Heartland are:

    -- Weirdly jarring choice to address the book to a supposed daughter Dr Smarsh might have borne as a teenager. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first, and biggest, is that it's very clear that there wasn't even the slightest chance of said child ever happening to Dr Smarsh as a teen, so the device comes off as affected. The second reason is that all the "you"s are also intended to engage you, the reader. That might have worked except for reason one. Dr Smarsh would have been better to simply address the reader directly

    -- Gaps in the narrative. Not in the stories of the women of her family, although they are there, but in her own. If Dr. Smarsh was, as she alleges early on, a surrogate mother to her brother, why is so little information given about this? In fact, once her father remarries and she leaves her mother to live with her grandmother almost full time, Matt simply vanishes from the narrative. The same is true of her father, who she clearly adores, but who also essentially vanishes once he remarries.

    Finally, after much detail about her early years, Dr Smarsh basically glosses over her own existence past middle school. Readers are told she worked many jobs, went to college and worked many jobs, and then, boom! She's a professor.

    In fact, Heartland felt like it started off as a personal memoir that was abandoned in favor of a partial family history. It's frustrating because there's some really compelling stuff in there, but there's no overall framework.

    It's like being told you're going to see a historic landmark, but when you get there, all there is to see is the outline of what might have been something and a faded plaque with half the words missing.

    There have been several recent memoirs purporting to be reflections of what it's like to grow up poor in America. So far, all they've provided are partial portraits that, in the case of Heartland, offer you a few stories that (in her relatives' cases, not her own) while interesting, are certainly not groundbreaking.

    *Except for her mother. Dr Smarsh clearly has a lot of anger still a brewing there.

    Overall, disappointing.

    The ARC note: I recieved an ARC of this.

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