Excerpt from Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Heartland

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

by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh X
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
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  • Published:
    Sep 2018, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Renner

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1
A PENNY IN A PURSE

The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita on the silty loam of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass. The area had three nicknames: "the breadbasket of the world" for its government-subsidized grain production, "the air capital of the world" for its airplane-manufacturing industry, and "tornado alley" for its natural offerings. Warm, moist air from the Gulf to the south clashes with dry, cool air from the Rocky Mountains to the west. In the springtime, the thunderstorms are so big you can smell them before you see or hear them.

Arnie, a man I would later call my grandpa, bought the farm-house during the 1950s to raise a young family. He spent days sowing, tending, and harvesting wheat. He eventually owned about 160 acres, which is a quarter of a square mile, and farmed another quarter he didn't own. That might sound big-time in places where crops like grapes are prized in small bunches. But for a wheat farmer in the twentieth century, when the price per bushel had been pushed down by the market even as yields had been pushed up by technology, it was just enough to earn a small living.

When a wheat crop was lost to storm damage or volunteer rye, sometimes milo went in. Arnie raised alfalfa, too, to bale for his fifty head of cattle. He also kept pigs, chickens, the odd goat or horse. He had one hired hand, and his sons and daughters pitched in at harvest. For extra money during the winter, when the fields were frozen, he butchered for a meat locker down the highway toward Wichita and sold aluminum cans he collected in barrels near a trash pile west of his pole shed.

When the old house turned quiet after his divorce, Arnie drank a lot of whiskey. On weekends, he liked to put on his good cowboy boots and go dancing in Wichita honky-tonks like the Cotillion, a small concert hall with a midcentury sign on Highway 54.

There, one night in 1976, country music played while widows and divorcées danced in Wranglers and big collars under a mirror ball. Sitting at a table with a butcher named Charlie and a farmer they called Four Eyes, Arnie noticed a skinny woman with short blond hair at another table. She and her friend wore the paper rose corsages given to all the women at the door.

"She's not gonna dance with you," Four Eyes told Arnie. "You're too damn fat and ugly."

Four Eyes himself got up and asked the blond woman to dance. She said no. So Arnie walked over. His hair was a feathery brown comb-over, and he wore carefully groomed muttonchops on his square jaw. His round belly jutted over his belt buckle. The woman, Betty, had overheard his friends making fun of him. So when he asked, Betty said yes.

She would be my grandma, and I would have loved for you to know her. Betty's whole life amounted to variations on that moment at the Cotillion: doing something kind for an underdog. That's the kind of love I would have wanted to surround you with: indiscriminate and generous, from people like Betty who had every excuse to harden their hearts but never did. She was no saint, never pretended to be. But she would have loved you not just because you were mine but because you existed in a world she knew wasn't easy for anybody

Betty and Arnie danced two or three songs. He smelled like Old Spice aftershave, and she liked his happy laugh. They agreed that every Johnny Cash song was the same damn tune with different words. Arnie thought she was a looker. Funny, too. He got her phone number. But when the band packed up and the dance floor cleared, she wouldn't let him take her out for breakfast at Sambo's down the highway. She'd stick with her friend and buy her own pancakes.

In the coming weeks, Arnie called her trailer a few times, but she didn't answer. Then the operator said the number was disconnected. Arnie went back to farming the land.

Excerpted from Heartland by Sarah Smarsh. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Smarsh. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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