Longlisted for the National Book Award for 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 beless 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.
Praise for Heartland:
“A deeply humane memoir that crackles with 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. . . . With deft primers on the Homestead Act, the farming crisis of the ‘80s, and Reaganomics, Smarsh shows how the false promise of the ‘American dream’ was used to subjugate the poor. It’s a powerful mantra.”
— 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.”
“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.”
“Startlingly vivid … an 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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Blending memoir and reportage, a devastating and smart examination of class and the working poor in America, particularly the rural working poor. An excellent portrait of an often overlooked group.”
“Candid and courageous … Smarsh’s raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that has ‘failed its children.'”
— Publishers Weekly
“[A] powerful message of class bias … A potent social and economic message [is] embedded within an affecting memoir.”
““By interweaving memoir, history, and social commentary, this book serves as a countervailing voice to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which blamed individual choices, rather than sociological circumstances, for any one person ending up in poverty. Smarsh believes the American Dream is a myth, noting that success is more dependent on where you were born and to whom … Will appeal to readers who enjoy memoirs and to sociologists. 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
“You might think that a book about growing up on a poor Kansas farm would qualify as ‘sociology,’ and Heartland certainly does.… But this book is so much more than even the best sociology. It is poetry—of the wind and snow, the two-lane roads running through the wheat, the summer nights when work-drained families drink and dance under the prairie sky.”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
“Sarah Smarsh—tough-minded and rough-hewn—draws us into the real lives of her family, barely making it out there on the American plains. There’s not a false note. Smarsh, as a writer, is Authentic with a capital A .… This is just what the world needs to hear.”
— George Hodgman, author of Bettyville
“Sarah Smarsh is one of America’s foremost writers on class. Heartland is about an impossible dream for anyone born into poverty—a leap up in class, doubly hard for a woman. Smarsh’s journey from a little girl into adulthood in Kansas speaks to tens of thousands of girls now growing up poor in what so many dismiss as ‘flyover country.’ Heartland offers a fresh and riveting perspective on the middle of the nation all too often told through the prism of men.”
— Dale Maharidge, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning And Their Children After Them
Bravery and grit across the socioeconomic divide, bearing it all down on the page, an unnoticed struggle now noticed, with honest truth work here, a woman’s tale, lucidly and empathically tying her struggles with the reader, one left ruminating what her heart uneasy with itself with what social divides dealt, the potent voice and the myriad voices representing an alternative American dream.
A raw and uncompromising compassionate portrait of one who was poor in money but rich in spirit and will, a young woman born and raised in Kansas Texas and all that comes with it, up against a dishonest economic system.
“The American working class is not just angry white male conservatives. They are not just in Appalachian hollers or Rust Belt factory towns. They are down the hall from you, in an office that some remnant of the American dream allowed them to access, smiling uncomfortably as someone makes a joke about “rednecks.” My story reveals how our most private experiences are shaped by public forces. But this book is not an argument. It is an invitation to heal.”
“America didn’t talk about class when I was growing up. I had no idea why my life looked the way it did, why my parents’ young bodies ached, why some opportunities were closed off to me. I suppose we never completely do, even with hindsight. But the hard economies of a family, a town, a region, a country, a world were shaping my relationship to creation—to my womb, yes, but also to what I would or wouldn’t have a chance to make of myself.
I was on a mission toward a life unlike the one I was handed, and things worked out as I intended. I’m glad you never ended up as a physical reality in my life. But we talked for so many years that I don’t guess I’ll ever stop talking to you—not the you that would have been but the you that exists right now. There are two of you, as with all of us: the specific form and the energy that enlivens it. I only ever knew you as the latter, the formless power that I rode out of a hard place.”
“We can’t really know what made us who we are. We can come to understand, though, what the world says we are. When I found your name, in my early adulthood, I don’t think I’d ever heard the term “white working class.” The experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic disadvantage, which can exist simultaneously. This was an obvious, apolitical fact for those of us who lived that juxtaposition every day. But it seemed to make some people uneasy, as though our grievance put us in competition with poor people of other races. 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?”
“There’s an image in popular culture of the poor white female version: a smoke hanging out of her mouth, a baby on one hip, and the screen door to her trailer propped open with the other. You could say my mother was that woman and I was that baby, and that you would have been that baby, too. But as members of all sorts of stereotyped groups know, the popular image—selected or fixated upon by someone more powerful than you—doesn’t tell you much about the life.”
“Public condemnation of welfare was not just a poverty problem but a race problem. People of color and poor whites both faced stereotypes of indolence, but no one fared worse in those judgments than black women. During the 1960s, Louisiana passed a law excluding from cash benefits women in common-law marriages or those who had given birth out of wedlock in the last five years, in the process excluding 6,000 families with 22,500 kids. Ninety-five percent of these families were black. In 1965, New York politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan pushed a report attributing societal woes to the divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births among black families and, by extension, household leadership by black women.
Maybe due to the civil rights and women’s movements, attitudes toward poor women improved some in the 1970s. Welfare raids on women’s homes ended. Richard Nixon counted it as a point of pride that federal funds for food assistance tripled during his presidency.”
“Yet it is true: I was a Kansas farm girl with wanderlust who watched many storms blow the shingles off our roof. Every spring and summer, heavy air masses moving in opposite directions clashed above us. The horizon was a strip of pink sky between the brown earth and a rolling black wall of cloud. We needed to worry when the sky took a green tint, the air became still, and the cattle huddled against the fence, looking concerned.”
“To experience economic poverty in a place famous for its abundance is to live with constant reminders of what you don’t have, like running a hot marathon next to a cool reservoir from which you’re not allowed to drink.”
“Economic destitution is just one of many possible poverties, of course. People of all backgrounds experience a sense of poorness—not enough of this or that thing that money can’t buy. But financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking. If you’re poor in a wealthy place, common vocabulary suggests that economic failure is failure of the soul.”
“This country has failed its children, August, failed its own claims about democracy and humanity. The American Dream, in particular, sometimes seems more like a ghost haunting our way of thinking than like a sacred contract worth signing toward some future.”