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

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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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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 304 pages

    Sep 2019, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Renner
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Betty wasn't the farming kind. She'd spent her adult life moving among urban areas in the middle of the country—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring towns. She and her daughter, Jeannie, who would be my mom, first hit the road when Betty was a teenager. Their whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down. By the time Jeannie started high school, they had changed their address forty-eight times, best I can count. They didn't count. They just went.

About a year after Betty and Arnie met, his pickup and her Corvette pulled up to the same highway intersection just west of Wichita. They waved at each other, rolled down their windows, and pulled into a nearby truck stop to get a hot drink. Arnie's life was the same, but Betty had gotten married and divorced in the months since they'd last seen each other. She had a wildness—not so much a streak but a core—that other middle-aged farmers might have found off-putting, even scandalous. But he fell in love and treated her better than she'd ever been treated. For one thing, he didn't beat her up. He didn't even complain about what she cooked for dinner or did with her life in general.

"Mox nix to me," he told her.

She stuck around.

During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her full-time job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie's farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer's wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.

Jeannie was fifteen and going to high school in Wichita, old enough by our family's standards to take care of herself while Betty was at work or at Arnie's farm. She'd finally gotten into a social groove after changing schools twice a year for most of her life. She didn't want to move this time, especially not to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Now that she'd been in one place long enough to turn in her homework, she was getting good grades and enjoying school. She preferred hanging out at Wichita's little outdoor mall to fishing in pasture ponds. Her hobbies were reading and fashion, which she studied in magazines before sewing her own clothes.

Fabric stores and public libraries would be in short supply on the Kansas prairie. Jeannie groaned. But her mom had decided they were going. They packed up yet again and moved west to Arnie's farm.

After a few months, Arnie asked Betty to marry him. Betty thought she was done with all that, and anyway, Arnie was Catholic. She'd heard the Church didn't take people who'd been divorced, let alone six times.

Father John, the priest of a nearby parish, assured her that none of those marriages counted since they weren't in the Church. She figured she had to count the first two husbands, since they'd fathered her children, but otherwise she liked the idea of disavowing every one of the bastards.

She and Arnie ended up marrying outside the Church anyway, in September 1977, at a little chapel on a highway next to a trailer park.

The newlyweds had constant company at the farm. Their pickup engines could be heard down the road, followed by the sound of tires rolling slow on the gravel driveway, usually around dinnertime. Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies—she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?

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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