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A vital new book about America's divide: 'Heartland' by Sarah Smarsh

A vital new book about America's divide: 'Heartland' by Sarah Smarsh
Sarah Smarsh, author of "Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth." (Paul Andrews)

In August 1981, the summer of author Sarah Smarsh’s birth, my parents were broke. Again. My father, a Vietnam vet armed only with a good mechanic’s hands, left the service and entered the dismal job market of the early Reagan years. We returned to our familial roots in the rural South, and what followed was a decade of shoestring budgets and the shoeless invisibility of that era’s draconian social policies. This geographic and fiscal marginalization granted me a childhood similar to the one Smarsh describes in her deeply affecting debut, “Heartland.”

It was into this same thin sliver of subsistence — just above the poverty line and just below the gaze of suburban liberals — that Sarah Smarsh was born. Thanks to the timing of her birth, her family, like mine and many others, would “map our lives against the destruction of the working class,” such that “wealth inequality was old news to us by the time it hit newspapers in the new millennium.”

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“Heartland” recounts five generations of Smarsh exploits in the farmlands of Kansas, from pioneer days to the Obama era, when the author finally breaks into the middle class.

The book is a personal, decades-long story of America’s coordinated assault on its underclass. We meet Grandma Betty, Sarah’s teenage parents and other hardworking — and often hard-drinking — relatives. Smarsh stresses the work in working poor; “It’s a hell of a thing,” the author writes, “to grow the food, serve the drinks, hammer the houses, and assemble the airplanes that bodies with more money eat and drink and occupy and board, while your own body can’t go to the doctor.” The Smarshes give up their bodies to the American Dream, raising your crops and butchering your meat. The wages for that labor are chronic stress, strained relationships and physical decline. “A society that considers your body dispensable,” we learn, “will inflict a violence upon you.”

Young Sarah endures the direct effect of a wide range of economic policies: farm subsidies, banking deregulation, education cutbacks (“If you live in a house that needs shingles, you will attend a school that needs books”).

“Heartland” also confronts the racial politics of poverty. Where lesser writers might invoke the term “white trash” as a badge of honor, Smarsh interrogates her own whiteness, rejecting the term “white working class” as divisive and harmful. She explains the overtly racist foundations of government aid programs and reminds us of the unconscious biases that separate people of color from the very idea of opportunity. We live in a society that “imbues whiteness with power … using it as shorthand for economic stability.” Our economy is designed around the idea that whites aren’t supposed to live the way we force black and brown people to live. Thus, identifying “white trash” as a separate class means they receive disproportionate visibility, over and above what we give to nonwhites facing the same (and worse) economic hardship. We already erase communities of color, Smarsh says, so glorifying white poverty only exacerbates others’ oppression.

Readers with social justice sympathies should be aware that they may not be the choir to whom Smarsh is preaching here. The author has little patience for the pitying nods of elite leftists who view people like her as “the ‘needy.’ ” Smarsh’s memoir delicately juggles the conflicting lessons of poverty, demonstrating how “society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” Similarly, right-leaning readers may be expecting the usual hagiography about farmers, but “Heartland” avoids these pitfalls. In short, because farms are often a go-to setting for Americana, you may think you have read this book before. You haven’t. This is not “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Hillbilly Elegy,” and it is never saccharine or self-deluding. This is a tough, no-nonsense woman telling truth, and telling it hard.

"Heartland" by Sarah Smarsh
"Heartland" by Sarah Smarsh (Scribner)

Thanks to persistent false narratives about poverty, families like mine and Smarsh’s — perhaps yours too — wasted generations believing in “trickle down” economics, leaving us “standing outside with our mouths open praying for money to rain.” Sarah Smarsh and I, and so many girls like us, moved whenever banks foreclosed and ate a lot of cheap tray lunches in underfunded public school cafeterias. These experiences solidified our mistrust of institutions, which accounts for many rural people voting against the very policies that might have aided us. Ultimately, we concluded that “the American Dream has a price tag on it,” and “the poorer you are, the higher the price.”

But, as Smarsh explains, just as many found that injustice only solidified our radical ideologies. “Some invisible hand ... affected us in ways we didn’t have the knowledge to describe or the access to fight.” “Heartland” is, in part, a recounting of the “deep progressive roots” in the author’s rural community, where women’s rights, abolition and pro-labor sentiments shaped her backstory. Young Sarah discovers and identifies with this still-extant legacy (especially Kansas’ intersectional suffrage movement) while putting herself through college. Education leads to her political awakening and, eventually, her career in journalism.

The strongest element of “Heartland,” then, is its unabashed womanliness. At a time of national reckoning about endemic misogyny, “Heartland” does some serious feminist consciousness raising. A rural woman suffers unique abuse in a rigged economic system; she is merely “a labor machine, a producer of children, and a decorative object.”

Powerlessness is inflicted, ironically, on the powerful, for these are women of untold, untapped strength. Smarsh offers not just a revision of familiar manly tales of struggle in the sticks, but indeed a new brand of feminism, one that invokes the history of early American activism. The book is written as an address to the author’s imagined daughter, a quasi-imaginary friend Smarsh invents in early childhood. This narrative device allows the book to be both tender and didactic without becoming sentimental. Here is a child, Smarsh says, and here is why I never let her be born.

Thus, Democrats seeking a “blue wave” in November would do well to read this book closely. Having spent my life in rural communities with women like Sarah Smarsh, I know my neighbors will appreciate the thesis of “Heartland.” Rurality has been co-opted into “a brand cultivated by conservative forces,” but with a bit of outreach, rural voters might be the very group that halts our country’s slide to the right. There is rich soil in America’s flyover states, and if we follow Smarsh’s path, we will find families like mine and the author’s, full of sensible, resilient women who may be disenfranchised, but who are also uniquely poised and equipped to aid in the revolution, and in our collective liberation.

Hampton is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains and edits Bat City Review.

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Sarah Smarsh

Scribner: 304 pp., $26

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