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

A perfect companion to Evicted and Nickel and Dimed, Heartland reveals one woman's experience of working-class poverty with a startlingly observed, eye-opening, and topical personal story.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...

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

  • Brad

    As a lifelong Kansan who came from a working class family in Topeka but knew nothing of the life of the rural parts of my state, I declare this essential reading. Essential not just for Kansans like me, but for so many who have no idea what rural poverty looks like.

    Sarah Smarsh recounts the story of her family--most notably the women who held the family together--while also weaving it into the larger dynamics of an increasingly crueler American capitalism that began with Reagan and continues to

    As a lifelong Kansan who came from a working class family in Topeka but knew nothing of the life of the rural parts of my state, I declare this essential reading. Essential not just for Kansans like me, but for so many who have no idea what rural poverty looks like.

    Sarah Smarsh recounts the story of her family--most notably the women who held the family together--while also weaving it into the larger dynamics of an increasingly crueler American capitalism that began with Reagan and continues to present day. Bold, honest storytelling and cultural critique, I hope this book finds the audience it deserves.

  • 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 sitatuon. 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.

  • 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.

  • Brandi

    I like reading about lives that are very different from my own. Sarah Smarsh is a good writer, and it was interesting to learn her family history and her views on the world. But I really wish this book had been organized chronologically instead of thematically. She jumped around in time, which made it hard to keep track of her many relatives and what they were doing. And I’m not really sure what each chapter’s theme was supposed to be, since they were each so long and had multiple messages. Ther

    I like reading about lives that are very different from my own. Sarah Smarsh is a good writer, and it was interesting to learn her family history and her views on the world. But I really wish this book had been organized chronologically instead of thematically. She jumped around in time, which made it hard to keep track of her many relatives and what they were doing. And I’m not really sure what each chapter’s theme was supposed to be, since they were each so long and had multiple messages. There was a lot of repetition in general that got tiresome. With better organization, the book could have been 50 pages shorter.

  • Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    From the NBA shortlist for non-fiction comes this memoir about growing up poor in a “flyover” state. While I can agree with a lot of what she says about growing up in a rural setting, I sometimes felt she over-dramatized some of it. That in addition to the weird way of talking to her ‘daughter’ throughout made this more of a so-so read for me.

  • 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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