Heartland by Sarah Smarsh (2018)

 

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This memoir offers a lens into what it means to be a hard-working Kansas farm family but never out of poverty. Those who think that hard work and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is what it takes to get ahead in our country are ignoring economic policies that have too often rolled out the carpet for big corporations while working class families suffocate under that same carpet. Smarsh’s story shows the hard scrabble life of long hours outdoors, often using dangerous machinery but no affordable health insurance to protect them. It also shows addiction, abuse, and teenage pregnancy passed on from generation to generation, all acceptable behavior in “flyover” country where access to treatment, birth control, and shelters are nearly non-existent–or socially frowned upon. Smarsh attributes her “success” in getting out to not becoming a teenage mom, and it’s this idea that centers the book. It’s written as a letter/message to her unborn daughter, named August, who becomes her conscience or her guardian angel or her motivation–I’m not sure which, but this idea that she could have a child and that this child would be born into poverty and that this cycle of poverty would not break is what breaks it for her. Near the end of the book, she finally says goodbye to that unborn child, that child of poverty, and in saying goodbye, Smarsh knows she has broken the cycle. A child may be born to her some day, but it will not be this child, this daughter to whom she always asked the questions what would I want for my daughter? What would I tell my daughter to do? 

This is a heartbreaking story, and at times, I got lost in the details of marriages because so many women in Smarsh’s family married five, six, even seven times–all unsuccessful, most fraught with abuse and addiction, many bringing more children into poverty, children ultimately attending 30 or 40 different schools before dropping out and getting pregnant. Sometimes it was hard to keep reading. Near the end she delves into politics, and it helped my understanding of why so many working class whites continue to vote Republican, against their interests. She puts it this way: “impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them” (272). Thus hope = vote Republican and all the economic policies that will ensure the cycle of working class poverty while tax breaks and offshore accounts will ensure continued wealth for the rich and for corporations. Failure = vote Democratic and take “handouts” for the “lazy and needy,” exchanging pride for shame. As Smarsh admits near the end of the book, it wasn’t until late in college that she began to understand fiscal policy and how it’s stacked against her people, but she knows her people will never get or understand or accept that information. They had been sold a bill of goods. But she also acknowledges that liberals often don’t understand how the very government programs meant to help the poor had shamed them, and that’s why they don’t trust programs that offer help. It’s complicated, but I feel better informed having read her memoir, a National book Award Finalist.

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