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book review

Making sense of American poverty and her own life

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“America didn’t talk about class when I was growing up,” writes Sarah Smarsh. Born to a teenage mother in the summer of 1980, she was a poor child in Kansas, a state that went big that fall for Reagan’s gauzy vision of morning in America, even as the farm economy that had once supported its people began to crumble. For a family like Smarsh’s, which was rooted to the land on one side and terrifyingly unrooted from much of anything on the other, the allegedly booming economy Reagan’s presidency created never trickled down to them. Instead, she writes, her childhood took place during “the destruction of the working class: the demise of the family farm, the dismantling of public health care, the defunding of public schools, wages so stagnant that full-time workers could no longer pay the bills.” 

In her sharply-observed, big-hearted memoir, “Heartland,” Smarsh chronicles the human toll of inequality, her own childhood a case study. She moved more than 20 times, her young life a patchwork of different school districts and households, cared for by adults who struggled to remain sober, employed, and clinging to the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Mostly, she toggled back and forth between the hard-won stability of her maternal grandparents’ farmhouse and her mother’s more transient lifestyle. (Grandmother Betty, like her daughter, gave birth while a teen; Betty was just 34 when Smarsh was born.)

Growing up in “the space of neglect where adults were too busy working or too drunk afterward to look after me,” Smarsh became a keen observer, tightly wound, and careful to stay alert, for “[e]very moment of my childhood required vigilance.” She loved all her relatives, but knew, “so deeply that I wasn’t even conscious of it, that my family was on the outside of something considered normal.” 

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Smarsh writes about coming of age in a place most Americans have never visited, associated mainly with lines from “The Wizard of Oz.” Like Smarsh, when I left Kansas for Boston, I could count on being called Dorothy any time I mentioned my home state. Unlike Smarsh, I never lived or worked on a farm, an experience she recounts with clear-eyed appreciation for its joys, its hardships, and its people. Whether lauded as salt of the earth or dismissed as hicks, Smarsh argues, these are lives that deserve to be seen clearly. “The countryside is no more our nation’s heart than are its cities, and rural people aren’t more noble and dignified for their dirty work in fields,” she writes. “But to devalue, in our social investments, the people who tend crops and livestock, or to refer to their place as ‘flyover country,’ is to forget not just a country’s foundation but its connection to the earth, to cycles of life scarcely witness and ill understood in concrete landscapes.” 

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Smarsh writes movingly of her father, Nick, an itinerant carpenter, and her grandfathers, whose hard work defined and often shortened their lives. But its her mother, Jeannie, and grandmother Betty who occupy the book’s emotional center. Betty “wasn’t the farming kind,” Smarsh writes; in fact, the “whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down.” Rural poverty is hard on a man, she makes clear, but it’s downright dangerous for a woman, especially when an early pregnancy can trap her into a life without security or opportunity. “Poverty makes motherhood harder, and motherhood makes poverty harder,” she writes; for smart working-class women, dreams often die early, and painfully. “Being physically objectified that many times over — as a labor machine, a producer of children, and a decorative object — all while being aware of your unexpressed talent can make the body feel like a prison.” 

Throughout the book, Smarsh writes in a form of address to an imagined child — an unborn, perhaps never-to-be-born daughter she names August. As a literary convention, it’s occasionally unsuccessful — much like novels disguised as diaries, the second-person narrative can strain good sentences into bad — but there’s an emotional power that comes through, a resonance that keeps readers focused on the weight and importance of Smarsh’s project: “to articulate what no one articulated for me: what it means to be a poor child in a rich country founded on the promise of equality.” 

In the book’s most heartbreaking moments, Smarsh reckons with the sense of shame that poverty bestows, and its persistence even in a life that is, by any external measure, a success. Her teachers had always noticed she was smart, Smarsh writes, “the defining intervention of my life.” Unlike the women who came before her, she graduated from high school, then college, without having a baby — but she rankles at being asked “how she escaped” and refuses to engage in judgmental anthropological dissection of the people she came from. In this way, “Heartland” serves as a corrective to the finger-wagging in books like “Hillbilly Elegy,” which focus on the symptoms of inequality rather than its causes. After all, Smarsh argues, “[s]ociety’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” Instead, 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. 

HEARTLAND:

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

By Sarah Smarsh

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Scribner, 290 pp., $26

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.