Summary and book reviews of Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

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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About this Book

Book Summary

A perfect companion to Evicted and Nickel and Dimed, Heartland reveals one woman's experience of working class poverty with a startlingly observed, eye-opening, and topical personal story.

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 be less 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.

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, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. At the beginning of the memoir, Smarsh writes that, as a child, "I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world." What did this other voice tell her? What did the people in her house and on the news say about her?
  2. Smarsh is the product of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother's side. She writes that she was like a penny in a purse, "not worth much, according to the economy, but kept in production." How did this legacy of teenage pregnancy affect her family's social and economic mobility?
  3. Smarsh and her brother were each born just weeks before Reagan won an election, and his economic policies had a tremendous impact on her childhood. Can you describe what that impact looked ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Though Smarsh tells her story with grace and compassion, one structural detail stands out as a distracting oddity. Much of the book is addressed to "you." Blink and you'll miss the reason why. Smarsh is writing as if to her daughter, a person who does not and may never exist, because Smarsh has chosen to remain childless. Despite this idiosyncrasy feeling odd to the reader, it is not a narrative choice Smarsh made illogically. In addressing her non-existent daughter, Smarsh calls attention to one aspect of impoverished women's lives that often seals their fate: having children early and grappling with supporting them during the years middle- and upper-class women typically get ahead with education.   (Reviewed by Rebecca Renner).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Candid and courageous ... Smarsh's raw and intimate narrative exposes a country of economic inequality that has 'failed its children.'

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A potent social and economic message [is] embedded within an affecting memoir.

Author Blurb Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
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.

Author Blurb George Hodgman, author of Bettyville
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.

Author Blurb Dale Maharidge, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning And Their Children After Them
Heartland offers a fresh and riveting perspective on the middle of the nation all too often told through the prism of men.

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Beyond the Book

Poverty is Expensive

United Way ALICEContrary to many deeply guarded beliefs about people living in poverty in the United States, most who can't afford the necessities of life are, in fact, employed. The United Way calls these people Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE). More than 34.7 million families in the United States (10.6%) fell into this category in 2018, and their numbers are growing. You probably see them every day. They're waitresses, receptionists, salespeople and cashiers. They get by month-to-month and are able to save very little. This is because poverty is expensive.

Housing
One of the largest expenses for any budget is housing. Across the U.S., the growing cost of rent has greatly outpaced wages. Approximately 47% of renters spend more than ...

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