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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Ray found a job, played pool for money, and sold drugs on the side, Betty told me. They moved into a bigger apartment. Soon Betty's lawless crew from Wichita was streaming in and out. Betty sent a letter to her mom and little sister. Baby Jeannie's scribbles fill the space at the end, and it looks like a kid wrote the letter itself—loopy cursive slanting backward, bubbles dotting the i's. It was all about money. How much did things cost? Who was working? What were the losses to report?

June 24, 1963

1365 Sunnyside

Chicago, Ill.

Dear Mom & Pud,

Hi, how ya doing?

Okay, I hope. We are all okay. Still working, but I only work four hours a day so I'm gona look for another job. Ray's working anywhere from 12 to 17 hrs a day. But the checks will be good. He get's paid day after tomorrow & I get paid Thursday.

Well there's no new's to write about. Oh the car blowed out. The Brakes went out completely, we lost the front brake cyninder first, then the back & now the master cylinder. But we dont drive it at all. We moved again now we have a three bedroom apartment. 35.00 a week, it's a hell of a lot better.

No bug's or mice.

And everyone has there own privacy.

Lynda's ole man's sister is living with us now.

Were all working now so there wont be any money troubles. Well I guess I better close for now.

Jeannie is okay, she is crying so she can write a letter too. We got a baby sitter for her, she treat's her real good. Well we miss you all. Will write more often now.

Love alway's

Betty, Jeannie & Ray

Have we got any important mail like Ray's discharge?

Plans changed quickly with a volatile character like Ray around. The beatings got bad again. One night, when Ray left to go out partying, he padlocked the apartment from the outside, in case Betty had a mind to leave.

"If the place had caught fire, we'd have been screwed," she told me. "The fire escape would've been difficult carrying a kid with ya, but if you were doin' it for your life, I guess you'd try."

The next day, when Ray had come and gone again with the car, and the padlock was off the door, Betty packed what she could in a suitcase and split. She and Jeannie rode a train back to Kansas.

"Jeannie had a pet monkey, a little stuffed toy. She hung on to that, ya know, like some babies carry blankets and stuff," Betty told me, holding back tears. "This was her security, this stuffed monkey. And it got lost. I guess we left it on the train."

It wasn't the lost stuffed animal that made Betty cry, of course, but knowing how miserable her daughter's childhood had been—even her security blanket, of sorts, got lost in the chaos—and interpreting this as her having been a bad mother. Jeannie's childhood traumas had more to do with the generational poverty she was born to than with her mom's love and capability. But, like most poor people I know whose lives appear riddled with failure, Betty saw it as her own fault.

* * *

Nick, my father, was born on Labor Day in 1955. That's a poetic birthday for a carpenter, but I didn't realize it until I was well into adulthood. Labor Day was, for us, a day the country took a break, but that carried no political significance. No one in my close family belonged to a union—most of the men being self-employed as farmers or tradesmen and most of the women doing work that was poorly unionized.

Plus, being out in the country kept us separate from that sort of organizing. Farmers don't work for hourly wages negotiated between unions and company bosses. Fields need tilled and cattle need fed whether it's a federal holiday or not. Nick's little German Catholic farming enclave had a community picnic outside the church every Labor Day to mark the end of summer, but they still did chores before and after.

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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